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Partnership Ensures Clean Air, Land and Water in the Uinta Basin

By Jared Mendenhall

The Uinta Basin faces dozens of unique environmental issues. Safeguarding air, land and water in the region requires state and local agencies to work together.

Jordan Mathis, health officer and executive director of TriCounty Health Department, which serves Uintah, Duchesne and Daggett counties.

Resourcefulness is as much a part of the frontier ethos as individualism. Coming up with ingenious solutions to life’s problems — on the cheap — is an essential skill in the rural expanses of the American West.

Jordan Mathis, health officer and executive director of TriCounty Health Department, understands this. In fact, he lives it daily as he works to promote, protect and improve the health of residents in Uintah, Duchesne and Daggett counties.

This was especially evident in his earliest weeks on the job. As fate would have it, TriCounty was the first district in Utah to have a resident travel from one of the African countries affected by Ebola.

As soon as TriCounty Health was aware of the possible infection, a plan was hatched. Mathis led efforts to coordinate the response with county officials and local health-care providers. Some of the ingenious solutions he came up to handle the potential outbreak included checking in daily with the patient over Apple’s FaceTime app to see if he was showing any signs of Ebola and, if needed, commandeering a county-owned RV trailer to act as a mobile quarantine and treatment station.

The patient never developed any symptoms and the crisis was averted.

That pioneering spirit of improvisation and maximizing resources, however, is in play each day in the relationship TriCounty Health shares with Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality and plays a key role in protecting the air, land and water in the Uinta Basin

The unique wintertime ozone in the Uinta Basin isalmost exclusively driven by VOC emissions from oil-and-gas production. When large amounts of these precursors are trapped in thermal inversions, which are typical in the Basin, there is enough power in the UV reflection from the snow on the ground to spark the chemical reactions that create ozone.

One of the success stories of this partnership is highlighted by the work being done to address the unique wintertime ozone in the region. Working with the Bingham Center at Utah State University, they have made advancement in identifying the extent and causes of ozone pollution in the Basin.

These efforts have shown that the ozone pollution was almost exclusively driven by VOC emissions from oil-and-gas production. When large amounts of these precursors are trapped in thermal inversions, which are typical in the Basin, there is enough power in the UV reflection from the snow on the ground to spark the chemical reactions that create ozone.

Ongoing monitoring and outreach programs are now helping to address air quality in the region.

Nathan Hall, DEQ district engineer, tests groundwater in neighborhood outside Rosevelt, Utah.

The point person in DEQ’s relationship with TriCounty Health is the district engineer, a DEQ employee stationed in the area works hand-in-hand with the health department. The engineer is the go-to guy for each of DEQ’s five divisions – Air Quality, Water Quality, Drinking Water, Waste Management and Radiation Control, and Environmental Response and Remediation.

This, however, is just one part of the partnership between the two agencies. TriCounty and DEQ have a formal work plan that outlines responsibilities and funding for various environmental projects in the Basin. A few of the projects outlined in the 2016 work plan include the implementation of a wood-burning stove education plan, ensuring source protection for drinking water, and protecting public health from exposure to contamination caused by improper disposal of solid and hazardous waste.

The quality of life in the Uinta Basin depends on this work plan every day to ensure that tap water is clean, sewer systems are working, and environmental messes are cleaned up.

Safeguarding Utah’s air, land and water requires unique, creative approaches. Agencies like TriCounty Health and DEQ will continue to find areas where they can work together to ensure state and local agencies are responsible for taxpayer dollars and maximize efforts in serving the citizens of Utah through balanced regulation.

Learn more about ozone pollution in the Uinta Basin here.

I am a public information officer for DEQ and a former marketer and magazine editor. Follow me on Instagram @Jarv801.