Out of breath


A dry cough rattles the throat of 63-year-old John Mionczynski, who is sun-tanned, fit and active and should be one of the healthiest people in Wyoming. He's spent his life goat packing through the Wind River Mountains and living off wild plants in the Red Desert. An ethnobotanist and wildlife biologist, he calls high, dry Atlantic City, Wyo., -- population 39 at last count -- his home. Today he interrupts packing for a four-day trip into the Bridger Wilderness to, between coughs, share the story of his deteriorating health. Last winter he woke up at 2 a.m. unable to breathe and called his doctor.  The doctor and his wife stuck their car in a snowdrift on the way to Mionczynski's house and walked the rest of the way in a blizzard carrying a stethoscope and inhalers.  Mionczynski, who has never smoked, was surprised to learn that he had whooping cough, which had developed into emphysema. On days when his cough gets bad, oxygen tubes thread behind his ears and under his nose to help him breathe.

The day I talked to him, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality's monitor at nearby South Pass showed ozone -- a colorless, odorless gas that is an ingredient in smog -- higher than levels scientists say are safe to protect human health. Of the six pollutants limited by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act, particle pollution and ground-level ozone cause the most widespread health threats.  Ozone can irritate lungs and airways, trigger coughing and inflammation, increase frequency of asthma attacks, enable respiratory infections, and aggravate chronic diseases like bronchitis and emphysema.

Ozone is usually an urban problem associated with exhaust from vehicles, but in Wyoming it's often the result of natural gas production such as that in the Green River Basin, 50 miles upwind of Atlantic City. During natural gas development, according to the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, "toxic volatile compounds, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, etc., and fugitive natural gas (methane), escape and mix with nitrogen oxides from the exhaust of diesel-driven, mobile and stationary equipment to produce ground-level ozone." While ozone is normally worse in the summer when more ultraviolet radiation from long hours of direct sunlight accelerates its creation, western Wyoming's ozone problems intensify during the winter, a phenomenon a coalition of scientists is still trying to sort out.  So far, monitoring shows higher ozone levels on calm, sunny winter days when an inversion -- a layer of warm air over a layer of cold air -- holds the gas in place while a reflective snow pack doubles ground-level UV.

Proposed new standards for ground-level ozone could eventually address Mionczynski's condition.  In 2008 the Bush Administration EPA reduced the allowable amount of ground-level ozone from 0.084 parts per million to 0.075 ppm, a change they estimated would yield substantial health benefits. However, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee – the group that undertook the scientific review behind the revisions – wrote an emphatic letter to the EPA Administrator soon after finalization of the new rules stating they did "not endorse the new primary ozone standard as being sufficiently protective of public health," and they "unanimously recommended decreasing the primary standard to within the range of 0.060–0.070 ppm" (italics original).

Revisions proposed by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson last January would bring the federal standards for ozone down to the recommended range.  The change, one of the most expensive and strictest environmental policies proposed under the Obama administration, has met significant opposition. The New York Times reported that meeting the new standards would cost polluters between $19 and $90 billion per year by 2020 while offering health benefits in the range of $13 billion to $100 billion over the same time period. Among the 675 counties nationwide that monitor ozone, 515 would be out of compliance (compared to 322 counties under the current standards). In early August seven U.S. senators wrote a bipartisan letter to Jackson describing that coming into compliance would increase energy costs while inhibiting job creation. The letter writers were concerned "that the Agency’s environmental policies are being advanced to the detriment of the people they are intended to protect." The Casper Star Tribune reported that the challenge of meeting the stricter standards is daunting to natural gas companies, which have already made efforts to reduce emissions of the pollutants that create ozone.  Furthermore, the new rule would create an enforcement nightmare, as 90 percent of the United States would be in violation. Even in Yellowstone National Park ozone levels regularly climbed higher than 0.060 ppm during monitoring from 2005 to 2007.  The final standard was due August 31, but in mid August the EPA announced it would delay issuing the new rule until the end of October. Some speculate that it would be more politically convenient for the EPA to issue the rule after the November election.

Linda Baker of the Upper Green River Alliance, a citizen group that advocates for environmental protection in the face of natural gas development in western Wyoming, says existing technology can control the pollutants that create ozone. "It is unconscionable to allow any company to operate with less than the best technology," she says about the natural gas operators in the Green River Basin of whom some, but not all, use selective catalytic reduction to control nitrous oxide emissions. Operators have also installed liquids gathering systems, pipelines that reduce engine exhaust by eliminating some truck traffic needed to transport produced gas.

Mionczynski of Atlantic City says the difference between the existing and proposed standards is noticeable. When ozone increases above 0.060 ppm he has trouble breathing, and once it reaches 0.065 ppm he has to go on oxygen or leave the area. His emphysema disappeared entirely on a recent trip out of state, and it also goes away if he drives north or ascends into the Wind River Mountains to escape the plume from the gas fields. Still true to the life he has carved for himself in this wide, wild country, when he can't escape the ozone by leaving, he puts his medicinal plants expertise to use treating his condition with Mexican Milkweed, also known as inmortál, which he calls a "very, very potent herb."

The author is a High Country News intern.

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