SALT LAKE CITY — Federal land managers, top air quality officials and clean air advocates met with Gov. Gary Herbert Wednesday to map out a strategy to tackle air pollution issues in the Uintah Basin.
Herbert has already committed $200,000 in funding in next year's fiscal budget to support monitoring efforts in the region, and Bureau of Land Management state director Juan Palma said his agency has already spent a quarter of a million to gather air quality data.
Sampling already done indicates the basin has experienced significantly high levels of ozone in the winter as well as fine particulates such as PM 2.5.
That monitoring is telling "many of us what we have known for years; that when we get snow early, we have long miserable cold weather and we are going to have poor air," said Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal.
"We are in a fish bowl out there. The biggest issue we have is that it is hard to change the geography," he said, adding that even before there was much oil and gas development the area would suffer from long stretches of fog or smog.
State Department of Environmental Quality Director Amanda Smith said the quandary her agency faces is that it has no direct regulatory control over pollutants in that region because it has not designated a "non-attainment" zone by the Environmental Protection Agency.
While her authority is limited, she said, the Uintah Basin air pollution problems present an opportunity for air quality regulators to get ahead of the problem and determine the science behind the pollution.
"This is a first time for the state and we're in this strange position where we know there is an issue, but the area is still in attainment," she said. "The challenge is that there have been a lot of hands on deck and we're not coordinating."
Working groups tapping the expertise of local health officials and county commissioners have already been formed to address the problem and the BLM has hired an air quality expert.
Juan Palma, who took over the Utah BLM this summer, said he thinks it is possible to strike a balance between allowing the industry to continue its extraction pursuits and protecting the environment.
"I really do believe that we can have a legacy of both economic development and a legacy of environmental safeguards that protect our children and grandchildren," Palma said.
Local commissioners complained that while the industry has invested large chunks of money into making oil and gas development "cleaner," the opportunity for them to get credits for those actions is not available because the area is in non-attainment.
Herbert said that philosophy seems backward — with incentives that kick in only after the problem has risen to the level where it has attracted the attention of the federal government.
"I am a firm believer in the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Herbert said, adding later that to continue to ignore the problem would be to "do so at our own peril."