Pinedale, Wyoming is where people go to get away from it all. Here in paradise, though, ozone alerts have become as common as snow days.
The problem is the result of several factors, not the least of which is natural gas drilling. Still, locals seem to trust the gas companies more than the enviros.
Strong sun, not too much wind, a good thick snow pack: sounds like a perfect late winter’s day in a remote rural Western valley rimmed by snaggle-topped mountains.
But that has also been the stage set for the worst ozone pollution event here in three years — in one of the places people might least expect. The nearest metropolis, Salt Lake City, is 180 miles away, and the usual smog suspects — cars, trucks, factories, indeed people in general — are few and far between in a county of only 8,800 residents.
State environmental officials declared another ozone alert here on Wednesday, the second in less than a week, anticipating that air pollution would settle in starting Thursday.
“It’s like a pot, with all the mountain ranges around it, and the inversion is like a lid,” said Keith Guille, a spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, describing the conditions for cooking pollutants and creating the atmospheric inversion that locks them in place.
The upper Green River basin in southwest Wyoming has polluted-air days for a combination of reasons: its geography, in a valley at 7,000 feet; its typical winter weather that produces sun on highly reflective snow; and its economy, heavily based on natural gas drilling, which scientists say produces smog’s underlying chemical base.
“If poor air quality is what I have to live with, then that’s a choice I make,” said Dawn Mitchell, 43, a day care teacher who said she thought ozone or other pollutants here were not a particularly big deal, weighed against the benefits of an empty Western playground in one’s backyard. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” she said.
Some people have called for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to answer questions about how gas drilling might be contributing to air pollution. But the agency recently removed the topic from those it is considering for a national study of hydrofracking, a relatively new high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing method used in gas drilling in Wyoming and elsewhere.
Some residents said they thought ozone alerts and talk of pollution were part of an environmentalist plot to take down the oil and gas industry.
“It’s the Greenpeace people who don’t like it,” said Teren Donley, 25, whose husband is a supervisor for a pump truck in the gas fields south of town.