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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...