In the fall of 1993, a few years before the oil boom, I moved to Vernal, Utah. I have lived here for almost a quarter of a century. Thirteen of those years, I was the local Bureau of Land Management Law Enforcement Ranger, patrolling the BLM lands in Uintah, Daggett, and Duchesne counties.
In 1993, the air was much cleaner than it was during the oil boom that would soon follow. The main sources of air pollution were automobiles and the coal-powered Deseret Power Plant (DPP). I would patrol into the Book Cliffs at various times of the year, look back toward Vernal and see a brownish yellow haze over part of the Uintah Basin. This haze was most visible during the winter months, contrasting against the backdrop of snow-covered mountains. Most of the haze would be from the DPP.
About 1995, the oil boom began. The air quality diminished due to increased vehicle traffic: cars, pick-up trucks, semi-tractors and trailers, and, of course, the diesel engines running the big drilling rigs. The brownish-yellow haze grew in size; it covered more of the Uintah Basin. The cloud of air pollution was not the only form of visual pollution. The oil boom was also linked to increased roadside litter, usually in the form of beer cans, beer bottles, and empty beer cartons.
In the late 1990s, I moved from Vernal to a small community named Dry Fork. My house in Dry Fork Canyon is about 1,500 feet higher in elevation than Vernal. I can look east down the Canyon and see into Colorado. It was not long after I moved here that my view was impeded by a brownish-yellow cloud every day. Some days it came up to the house.
Vernal, as in many mountain valley towns, experiences air temperature inversions, which can occur at any time of the year, but they are most frequent during the winter months when the top of the pollution cloud is visible most days. During the summer months, the pollution is also visible but doesn’t always block the view into Colorado.
The U.S. EPA and Utah Division of Air Quality have established air monitoring sites at various locations throughout the Basin. The monitoring showed air pollution in the Uintah Basin to be greater than the pollution in Los Angeles and other big cities at certain times of the year. The monitors also showed a higher level of ground level ozone, especially in the winter when there was snow on the ground. Winter time ozone levels are usually higher than any other time due to photochemical reactions: ultra violet light striking nitrogen oxides that are formed by burning fossil fuels. Ozone is produced 24 hours per day, but the amount is increased with increased amounts of ultraviolet rays. Winter time increases the amount of ozone because UV rays reflecting off of snow strike more nitrogen oxides as the UV light moves towards the upper atmosphere.
In the early 2000s, I worked in the local hospital emergency department, and it seemed I worked few shifts without an acute asthmatic person. About this time, newspaper articles appeared about increased infant mortality and emergency room visits for respiratory issues, usually acute asthma cases brought on by particulate matter.
The fight for clean air is also linked to our local fight for clean water. In about 2011 I became involved in a movement to protect Vernal’s drinking water source. A Canadian agri-business wanted to place a phosphate mine on top of Ashley Creek. This action would have polluted the water source and increased air pollution from the activities of an open pit mine with dust, and other types of pollution from exhaust of mining equipment and milling the ore. Fortunately, for Vernal, this mine never came to fruition, giving me hope in the movement for clean air.
The oil boom ended about 2015. The production side of the oil and gas industry is still strong, with some wells still being "flared," burning excess methane gas and other volatile organic compounds, which produce nitrogen oxides and consequently ground level ozone. Automobile pollution has declined due to a decreased population base, but the DPP is still producing electricity and has once again become the biggest source of pollution.
We may never return to the relatively clean air of 25 or more years ago, but we should, we must, strive to do so for our health, the health of children, grandchildren, and the survival of our civilization.
Wayne Stevens lives in Dry Fork near Vernal, Utah. He worked as a Bureau of Land Management Law Enforcement Ranger across Northeastern Utah and received his degree in Rangeland Management from Washington State University. He has been an actively engaged community member in the fight for clean water and air. b. 1953