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Environmental groups upset over court ruling upholding EPA decision on Uinta Basin air quality

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SALT LAKE CITY — Environmentalists and clean air advocates are decrying a federal appeals court ruling this week that upheld the Environmental Protection Agency's decision not to red flag an eastern Utah region flush with oil and gas development.

The groups that mounted the legal challenge to the EPA's ruling after high levels of ground-level ozone were detected in the Uinta Basin haven't yet decided if they will appeal the ruling, but the organization is committed to pushing and prodding the EPA until it requires a cleanup of the air shed, said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians' climate and energy program director.

"Things are pretty out of control with the smog levels in the region," Nichols said.

Utah state officials and a prominent oil and gas industry group are pleased with the ruling. The decision Tuesday from the D.C. Court of Appeals validates the work already being done to remedy a problem that has been overblown by environmental groups, said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance.

"The air is being cleaned up. The air quality is being protected," Sgamma said. "Industry and regulators are not sitting around waiting to act."

The ruling deals with the Uinta Basin, an eastern Utah region home to hundreds of oil and gas wells that sits on land that is predominantly federal or tribal.

The state recently studied stillbirth deaths in the area after a midwife from Vernal reported seeing more stillbirths and infant deaths and questioned whether there might be a link to pollution stemming from the booming energy development.

The study found the 2013 stillbirth rate in Daggett, Duchesne and Uintah counties was 5.9 per 1,000 live births, the highest rate for the region since 1994. The rate fluctuated between 2.6 and 4.3 from 1994-2011, state figures show. But researchers didn't explain what led to the rise and said it wasn't a big enough jump to indicate a trend in the area, which had a population of about 54,000 in 2013. The statewide stillbirth rate in 2013 was 4.8 per 1,000 live births. The national rate in 2013 was 6.3.

Alan Matheson, the environmental adviser to Gov. Gary Herbert, called the decision a win for Utah. Matheson highlighted the work being done on a study launched in 2012 by state and federal officials to measure ozone levels over multiple years, and said in a statement steps are underway to clean up the air.

Sgamma said environmental groups were "foolishly" asking the EPA to rely on an incomplete data set. The region hasn't registered a high ozone reading since December 2013, Sgamma said.

That's in part due to a series of actions taken by the industry and regulators to limit emissions, increase inspections and do more training, she said.

She said oil and gas production has also declined to seven working rigs now, compared with 23 in the fall of 2014.

The decline was triggered by lower oil and natural gas prices that make the region less attractive for production. The price of production per barrel is significantly higher in the Uinta Basin than North Dakota, for instance, because it takes much longer to navigate through the federal regulatory process, she said.

Nichols said he and the other groups — Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance — aren't backing down. They said the ruling allows oil and gas companies to sacrifice public health for profits.

He said he's not convinced that the measures being taken by the industry will remedy the problem.

"Good intentions don't clean the air," Nichols said. "We're not going to sit back and rely on good intentions."


This story has been corrected to show that Alan Matheson is not new to the role of being the governor's environmental adviser.

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