SALT LAKE CITY -- Scientists are gearing up for a new study to determine why so much ozone pollution builds up each winter in Utah's Uinta Basin.
Utah State University and Idaho National Laboratory scientists today will begin intensive air quality monitoring to better explain the problem. The data gathered will be paired with information collected since the end of December.
"There's a lot of things it could be," said Scott C. Hill, the project's leader for USU's Energy Dynamics Laboratory and an expert in untangling the quirky chemistry of air pollution.
Data from 2010 showed winter ozone levels in the eastern Utah basin were some of the highest recorded in the United States, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures show basin ozone levels reached 123 parts per billion last winter. That's far higher than the 75 parts per billion levels the EPA deems unhealthy.
Scientists say weather and geography play a big role in ozone everywhere.
In the basin, snow also appears to be a factor, since it reflects energy from sunlight back into the air. When combined with high pressure, sun and snow turn the basin into a bowl that seals out cleansing precipitation and wind.
Pollution in the Uinta Basin also appears to linger longer. Unhealthy smog levels were recorded on 40 days last winter in the basin, compared with Salt Lake City, which had just three last summer.
The study is slated to monitor weather conditions, including temperature, relative humidity and other factors, through March. It also will log ozone readings every few minutes at 10 locations.
The information gathered will someday suggest what decision-makers should do, what ozone ingredient they can tamper with, to help clear the smog in the basin, Hill said.
Some critics, however, wonder why recommendations from the study should be years in the making, when other communities with similar characteristics -- weather and an oil and gas industry -- have successfully reduced ozone pollution by cutting industry emissions.
"We know for certain that oil and gas development involves the precursors," said David Garbett, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "A reasonable mind would think this (industry) is one of the first things we should think of" as a cause.
Others wondered whether the study is tilted against laying blame at the feet of the energy industry.
The study was funded by the Uintah Impact Mitigation Special Service District, which relies on millions of dollars in federal mineral-lease funds for its budget. If the pollution exceeds EPA limits for three years in a row, the basin's businesses and residents could face new ozone controls, including restricted development.
Officials at the EPA's Denver office, however, say they want to wait for more information before they act.
"Before you can find the appropriate control measures or response measures, you need to define the problem," said Carl Daly, who oversees air permitting, modeling and permitting in the EPA's Denver office.
Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com