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Residents in Uintah County, Utah are experiencing the health impacts caused by air pollution from the oil and gas industry. Theirs is just one story that reveals pollution from the booming industry is causing an increase in asthma attacks and increased risks of cancer and respiratory diseases not only in urban areas but in America’s rural countryside as well.

Ever since fracking arrived in Utah’s Uintah Basin, communities have reported worsening air conditions and alarming trends in their public health. Because some residents who have spoken out about these impacts have been subject to threats and harassment as a result, this case study is anonymous.

In 2018, Uintah County was recently listed as “nonattainment” with health-based standards for ground level ozone pollution by the U.S. EPA. A study by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality found that oil and gas-related sources were responsible for the majority of NOx and VOC emissions – ozone smog precursors – in the Uintah Basin in 2011. The number of oil and gas wells in the county has grown by 24 percent since 2011. The nonattainment designation will require the state to do more to address the ozone problems caused by oil and gas pollution. The state has three years to act to reduce ozone levels, or it will face a federal crackdown.

Residents experience the worst impacts of air pollution during winter inversions, when dense, cold air gets trapped under a layer of warmer air, sealing in pollution in the basin. In the past, communities could expect some relief from these respiratory stressors during warmer months, but this has become less common. Some residents attribute this failure of seasonal respiratory relief to the rise in oil and gas industry activity.

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Other health impacts have also been observed in the county. One medical professional in Vernal reports that, the three most common health impacts in adults are respiratory issues, heart disease, and kidney disease. During the onset of fracking in the basin, health impacts were first noticed in infants and children, but the rates of health issues have been increasing in the adult population as well – anecdotal evidence suggests that adult asthma rates are going up.

Humans are not the only population suffering from oil and gas air pollution. Horses, cattle, and other animals breathe the region’s air and are being negatively impacted. Concerns have been raised within the Utah Department of Natural Resources over increasing animal infant mortality rates, particularly in cattle, horses, and domestic pets.

Residents of Vernal have observed an increased prevalence of certain illnesses that coincide with oil and gas development, and they would like to see an unbiased scientific study of the causes, including monitoring and evaluation by public health researchers to determine whether the oil and gas emissions are contributing. Residents are also calling for more accurate air monitoring that can help residents make informed decisions about their activities and when they may need to avoid spending time outside, but city council members and other local leaders have been unsupportive of this kind of change in monitoring methods.

Left image shows a normal view of an Uintah County oil and gas facility. Right image is an infrared view of the same
facility, showing normally invisible pollution.

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