Rural Wyo. County's Air Quality Rivals L.A.

fromWPR

Sublette County, Wyoming, is known for its wildlife and its stunning open spaces. It is also home to one of the largest natural gas fields in the U.S. And now the county has an air quality problem that rivals that of Los Angeles.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

To Wyoming now and a place that would seem to be idyllic. Sublette County is a wild mountainous spot an hour and a half from Grand Teton National Park. But last month the county registered ozone levels higher than any recorded last year in famously smoggy Los Angeles. Wyoming Public Radio's Molly Messick has the story.

MOLLY MESSICK: On many afternoons, Mary Lynn Worl is here feeding the three llamas she keeps in a fenced area near her home in western Wyoming.

Ms. MARY LYNN WORL: You get some. This is Tosi and the other one is Gypsum.

MESSICK: These aren't just pets - they're pack animals. Worrell is 69 and she likes to be outdoors. A few times a year she packs up her provisions and heads out for a week at a time.

Ms. WORL: You know, I started going into the mountains, these wind rivers, when I was 10, 12 year of age. And even though over the years so many people have been in these mountains, I get up there and then I - maybe I'm off the trail or someplace and I keep thinking no other human has stood here.

MESSICK: But lately, Worrell has been spending more time inside - that's because of the ozone problem. Ground-level ozone is a gas formed when sunlight warms chemicals in the air. It can cause respiratory difficulty and has been linked with premature death. In a county so sparsely populated that there's not even one stoplight, levels have recently spiked well above the federal standard.

Ms. WORL: I get watery eyes, feeling some constriction. I go...

(Soundbite of breathing)

Ms. WORL: ...oh wow, I bet the ozone's high.

MESSICK: State environmental officials acknowledge that part of the problem lies here, in the massive natural gas fields south and east of Mary Lynn Worrell's home.

Mr. KEVIN WILLIAMS (QEP Resources): Kind of this swilling noise you hear is actually the gas blowing through the equipment over here.

MESSICK: Kevin Williams works for QEP Resources, an oil and gas company. He's pointing out a system that the company has installed to cut down on emissions. Sublette County's ozone problem only rears its head in winter and early spring, and Williams says that at the heart of any discussion about air quality in Sublette County is a discussion about jobs.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Industry does provide a heck of an economic boost to Sublette County. No doubt it. It's why I'm here. I mean, it's a job. I'm supporting my family and living a good life.

Mr. JOEL BOUSMAN (Commissioner, Sublette County, Rancher): Right now, Sublette County has in the neighborhood of $100 million in reserves.

MESSICK: Joel Bousman is a county commissioner and fourth generation rancher and he's seen natural gas development bring more money to this area than ranching ever did.

Mr. BOUSMAN: We have a state-of-the-art aquatic center. We've had additions to our county library. We have two state-of-the-art health care clinics that cost the county in the neighborhood of $18 million.

MESSICK: All of this in a county of just 10,000 people.

Dr. TOM JOHNSTON (Retired Physician): Some mornings you can't see past that mountain because of the gray haze.

MESSICK: Tom Johnston is retired now but for decades he was the county's only doctor. He's looking out the picture window in his living room. There's a view of hay meadow buried in snow and beyond that are tall craggy mountains. Johnston says he's frustrated.

Mr. JOHNSTON: We are helpless to change anything. If I see something that I can correct, I want to correct it. I see something that I want to correct that is correctable, and I can't change it.

MESSICK: Johnston looks at the big forces at play - the demand for domestic energy production, the political power of the oil and gas industry and the new jobs right here where he lives, and he sees little chance for this remote spot of western Wyoming to ever be the pristine place it once was.

For NPR News, I'm Molly Messick.

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