Fog over the Four Corners: Part I

(First in a two-part series) Click here to read Part II

The thought of smog polluting the rural Four Corners seems implausible, but in fact pollution levels in the region are already on the rise. And with major energy development planned for the nearby San Juan Basin, the brown cloud often seen wafting toward us from the south will likely get worse, threatening human health and the clear views so valued by the tourism industry.

Rich in fossil fuels, the Four Corners exports the nation’s most valuable commodity – energy — but at a hefty environmental price. Extracting and burning the coal and natural gas depended on for power by Phoenix, Albuquerque and Las Vegas impairs air quality for the sparsely populated local region.

“We are shouldering as a community a lot more pollution than if we were just supplying energy for ourselves,” said George San Miguel, natural-resources director for Mesa Verde National Park.

That means higher levels of ozone, an odorless, colorless pollutant caused when exhaust from combustion engines and coal-fired power plants (nitrogen oxides) chemically reacts with oil and gas field emissions (volatile organic compounds) via sunlight.

Data collected from an air-quality monitoring station at Mesa Verde show that ozone levels have been “slowly going up” over the last three years, San Miguel said. He described the trend as a “warning signal for the rest of the area because if it is getting dirtier here, then you could probably conclude it is getting worse in Cortez,” and other nearby towns such as Mancos and Durango.

The Environmental Protection Agency has set a human health standard for maximum ground-level ozone of 84 parts per billion allowed at any given time in the ambient air. Currently, Mesa Verde is at a running average of 69 ppb, a level which the Environmental Protection Agency calls “moderate.” Levels lower than 65 ppb are considered “good.”

So far, the area around Mesa Verde has not gone above the 84-ppb maximum, although it spiked at 82 ppb in August 2000, according to EPA reports. Furthermore, the number of days ozone has gone over 65 ppb has increased, going from five days over that level in 1997 to 26 days over 65 ppb in 2001, a fivefold increase.

High ozone levels, a component of smog, contribute to asthma, lung and throat problems. When inhaled deeply, ozone damages the lungs, so it poses a special risk for active adults and children, even at lower concentrations than allowed by law. People with asthma and the elderly are also more susceptible to levels below the 84 ppb threshold.

“Studies have shown that ground-level ozone as low as 50 ppb can be a health risk,” said Nathan Ballenger, an air-quality technician with the San Juan Health Department.

“Going over the maximum ozone impacts everyone’s health even if they are walking down the street. But lower levels can irritate adults and children who are active outdoors because they are breathing more heavily, bringing ozone into the lungs where it blocks the exchange of oxygen.”

Ozone levels tend to be highest in the summer months when temperatures go over 85 degrees.

So where is the air pollution coming from? Coal-burning electrical power plants outside Farmington, N.M., are two culprits. Increased traffic, circular weather patterns that bring in smog from elsewhere, agricultural burning, dust, wood stoves, gas heaters and forest fires also boost ozone and haze levels locally.

But what has environmental and health officials particularly worried is an approved plan to develop 10,000 more gas wells in the San Juan Basin, which stretches roughly from southwestern Colorado into northern New Mexico. The well heads are expected to be installed within the next 10 to 20 years, and will add to the 20,000 gas wells already in the San Juan-Paradox Basin – 2,500 of which are in southern Colorado.

Dubbed the “Persian Gulf of natural gas” by the oil and gas industry, the region has become a target for increasing domestic energy production to serve the rapidly growing Southwest. According to the Bureau of Land Management, which approved the well expansion plan, Mesa Verde National Park and the Weminuche Wilderness area are expected to exceed ozone standards under the Clean Air Act because of new gas-production pollutants.

Critics argue not enough was required of the industry to reduce emissions, especially in regard to the compressors which pump the gas along pipelines.

“The BLM has predicted that the cumulative emissions will exceed maximum levels under the Clean Air Act, but yet they are not requiring readily available controls to prevent it,” said Dan Randolph, oil and gas organizer with the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a Durango-based energy watchdog group.

Large compressor stations move gas and methane from well heads to pipelines and then on to markets. Pollution controls like catalytic converters reduce emissions contributing to ozone by up to 90 percent, environmental groups argue.

But the industry says they are too expensive, “and the BLM has chosen to deal with exceeded ozone levels once they happen rather than before by requiring controls,” Randolph said.

“It is not logical and it is hard to imagine that this billion-dollar industry can’t afford to install controls. Basically, as it is now, we face a major health risk in 10 years when emissions begin to reach those dangerous levels” already anticipated by the federal government in charge of protecting citizen safety.

The EPA reports that if a community exceeds levels set for ozone, it will face restrictions regardless of where the pollution originated. That could mean burning bans on heavy smog days, coded warning days to alert the public to stay indoors, moratoriums on wood-fire stoves, or curtailment of industrial projects with heavy emissions.

The Ute Mountain Ute tribe has begun monitoring for pollutants because of the reservation’s proximity to coal power plants. Environmental director Tom Rice reported that “large sources” of sulfur dioxide have been detected along the southeastern border of the reservation. The pollutant is a byproduct of coal-burning. The tribe plans to implement a permanent air-monitoring program within one year in order to further monitor the situation, Rice said.

A Four Corners Task Force has organized to monitor each new well application and to push for emission controls. But more public pressure is needed to force improved smog controls, officials maintain.

“I see the pollution here as a national problem because the energy that is produced in the Four Corners provides for millions of Americans in distant cities; therefore everyone has to participate in cleaning it up,” San Miguel said. “Mesa Verde by itself cannot stop rising ozone levels. Congress intended for our air to be clean, but that is no guarantee. It is up to the citizens to decide what will happen to our air quality.”

Too often the brown cloud to the south blocks views of nearby Shiprock, a mere 50 miles away. On really clear days, the distant Chuska, Lukachukai and Sangre de Cristo Mountain ranges can be readily seen.

In the second part of the series next month the Free Press will evaluate impacts smog has on health and scenic visibility and what technology and conservation can do to help.

(Free Press researcher and writer Carolyn Dunmire contributed to this report.)

From February 2004.