San Juan County earns failing marks for ozone

James Fenton
The San Juan Generating Station is pictured in Waterflow.

FARMINGTON – An American Lung Association study issued earlier this month found that San Juan County and four other counties in the state are failing when it comes to smoggy air.

A 2016 report by the American Lung Association shows San Juan, Eddy, Bernalillo, Doña Ana and Valencia counties scored failing grades for ground-level ozone pollution.

But while the county failed over ozone according to the study, it earned an A grade for particle pollution.

The ALA 2016 State of the Air study looked at pollution levels across the U.S. In New Mexico, the study showed the Farmington metropolitan statistical area, which contains 123,785 people, according to American Lung Association's website, came in first in the U.S. for metropolitan areas for 24-hour particle pollution.

The findings in the study show that Farmington:

  • ranked No. 84 for high ozone days out of 197 metropolitan areas
  • ranked No. 1 for cleanest metropolitan areas in the country for 24-hour particle pollution
  • ranked No. 171 for annual particle pollution out of 171 metropolitan areas

Moms Clean Air Force’s New Mexico field manager Chelsey Evans said in a press release that blame for ozone pollution, like methane, is due to the oil and gas industry.

“Ozone pollution tied to poorly regulated oil and gas drilling harms the health of children and leads directly to asthma," Evans said in the release. "State and federal regulators need to do a better job of limiting oil and gas air pollution. (The five counties') failing grades should be a wake-up call on the need to better protect all New Mexicans from air pollution. Ozone (commonly referred to as smog) pollution has serious human health impacts and is created by two forms of emissions (oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds), both tied to oil and gas development."

But Wally Drangmeister, New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman, said that the sources of ozone pollution are too numerous to lay the blame entirely on the industry.

"I do take great exception that they called out oil and gas," Drangmeister said. "It's nothing but cheap theatrics to call this out as an oil-and-gas issue."

Drangmeister said there are other sources to be considered, including landfill gases, sewer treatment gases and other industrial processes.

Aztec resident Sug McNall has been actively engaged for decades in working toward developing cleaner air in the Four Corners. McNall remembers when the Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan Generating Station were built in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She said that overnight, the air in the Four Corners region deteriorated.

"We watched our air turn brown because they didn't have scrubbers on the units and blew dark smoke into the air," McNall said. "The sky was brown, and the ground was yellow. We started screaming over it."

Later, McNall joined the Ozone Task Force — later changed to the Four Corners Air Quality Group around 2005 — a mix of state and federal officials, industry representatives and members of the general public who seek to address ways to improve air quality through regional planning efforts

"I've sat through all these hearings over ozone, traveled here and there, we gave input, held meetings — all that bull----, and nothing's changed," she said. "Ozone and methane, too. Somebody's going to have to look out for our little kids and the elderly. It hits them the worst."

While she has spent much of her adult life rallying against the oil and gas, and coal industries fighting for cleaner air, she said the ALA report only confirms what she has long known.

"Hydrogen sulfide in 2005 from a well almost killed me. That really pissed me off," she said. "Emissions from gas wells. Not one of them is good for your health. We still have high asthma rates and respiratory problems, and our ozone still isn't taken care of. We're not making any progress, and our health is still at risk. When ozone levels are high, hospital and ER visits go up, plain and simple."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.