GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Where air quality is concerned, there's no environmental health crisis in Garfield County.
That was the take-home message that Paul Reaser, Garfield County's environmental health manager, relayed to the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) on Monday as he led them through reams of air quality data his agency has collected over the last four years.
"Right now there are no violations of national ambient air quality standards," he said, referring to EPA rules that establish safe levels of exposure to several airborne pollutants. "However, there are still numerous gaps in data and understanding."
The pollutants being tracked include particulates, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and volatile organic compounds. The monitors also track weather patterns.
Since 2008, the the county has operated stationary air quality monitoring sites in Parachute, Rifle and in Dry Hollow south of Silt. A fourth site has been moved from year to year, operating on Grass Mesa in 2008, at Rulison in 2009, and in Battlement Mesa since 2010. This year, a Carbondale-based station began collecting data in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Over the last four years, there have been days when emissions at some monitoring sites have exceeded EPA safe levels, Reaser said.
For example, ozone levels at the Rifle site exceeded EPA standards once in 2008 and once in 2012, while levels of particulate matter there exceeded EPA levels once in 2009. Levels of particulate matter at the Parachute station exceeded EPA safe levels once, in 2008.
However, Reaser said, these isolated high emission days don't qualify as "violations" of national standards, which are calculated by averaging pollution levels over a three-year period.
To date, the county has not determined whether the high emissions days were caused by gas drilling, construction, natural phenomena such as dust storms, or other factors.
2012 will mark the fifth year of data collection at four of the county's five monitoring sites. As time goes on, Reaser said, more data will make it easier to pinpoint what emissions are coming from gas drilling, other human activities or natural processes, and what pollutants are present in the air.
In addition to studying ambient air quality across the county, the BOCC has also pledged to pay up to $1 million to a three-year Colorado State University study is designed to characterize and quantify pollutants resulting from drilling and well completion.
The commissioners are currently in negotiations with CSU over the particulars of that agreement, but Reaser said if funding comes through, the team could have monitoring equipment set up at several gas wells in the county by the end of the year. Reaser serves as the county's representative for the air quality study team.
The proposed study would be the most comprehensive look yet at the full impact of gas drilling emissions, from truck traffic to hydraulic fracturing, in which drilling chemicals are extracted from a well.
The cost of the study is estimated at about $1.8 million, and a number of gas companies operating in Garfield County have pledged to contribute the additional $800,000 necessary to complete the effort.
Reaser wouldn't say which gas companies had agreed to participate, and Jeffrey Collett, the CSU scientist leading the study, could not be reached for comment.
The study will not evaluate human health impacts, but will provide the baseline data necessary to do so, according to Cassie Archuleta of Air Resource Specialists, a Fort Collins consulting firm partnering with CSU on the effort.
"This study will have implications for setbacks and other regulations," said Archuleta. By collecting data on the dispersion of oil and gas pollutants into the air, the study could influence how far gas wells are required to locate from surrounding homes and businesses.
Under a draft agreement between the BOCC and CSU, the commissioners would have 45 days to comment on any publication of study results, but they would have no authority to influence the content of any publication resulting from the study.
In other action, the commissioners:
• Approved a letter to the U.S. Forest Service requesting an additional 60 days to comment on a proposed oil and gas leasing plan for the White River National Forest. The agency recently released an environmental impact statement on the plan, which commissioners asked for additional time to review.
• Heard a presentation from representatives of the Silt Water Conservation District about the feasibility of constructing hydro-power projects at Harvey Gap and Rifle Falls. The district is requesting a grant of $500,000 from the county to help fund the projects, but commissioners took no formal action at Monday's meeting.