Pollution drops amid pandemic

CASPER — A University of Utah scientist has published preliminary research revealing a significant decline in air pollutants during the age of COVID-19. 

Logan Mitchell, assistant research professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, found that air pollutants dramatically fell along Utah’s Wasatch Front throughout late March, when compared to the same period last year. That’s in part due to the public health measures enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. For one, traffic congestion has been nearly cut in half in some areas of the region he studied. 

Mitchell used monitoring stations installed by Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality to track concentrations of air pollutants, including nitrogen oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, carbon dioxide and particulate matter, between March 15-31. The results from his analysis could provide some crucial lessons for Wyoming — the country’s leading coal producer.

Across the country, scientists have identified how a slowdown in emissions from traffic, power plants, petrochemical activity and other sources have led to cleaner air. The COVID-19 pandemic has relegated large portions of the public to their homes, and forced factories to slow or close. Both electricity and fuel demand nationwide have plummeted, too. 

Cleaner air comes with a suite of benefits for residents. Breathing in too much particulate matter and pollutants, like nitrogen oxides, can have severe respiratory consequences for humans, compromising lung function and causing coughs, asthma attacks or inflamed airways. 

But the relief of clean air may be temporary. 

“(The research) shows how fast the air quality improves after a reduction in emissions and suggests that as the economy starts to recover and emissions ramp up, we’re going to see our air quality get worse again,” Mitchell said. 

Most regions of Wyoming do not boast high population densities or high motor vehicle congestion for that matter. But that doesn’t mean pollution isn’t still a problem. 

Mitchell also created a virtual map using satellite data to capture the concentrations of nitrogen dioxide across the country. The map compares the concentration of the gaseous pollutant between March 15-31 to the same period in 2019. 

The results show marked improvements in air quality in certain regions of Wyoming this March, most notably around Rock Springs and Wright, two of the state’s largest coal-producing regions. Just outside Wright sit some of the largest coal mines in the country. Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide appear to have dropped between the second half of March 2019 and March 2020 around these towns, according to Mitchell’s map. 

That’s because it’s not just cars and trucks that coughs up these air pollutants. Coal facilities do, too. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide generated during coal mining and burning can produce a nefarious orange haze around the area. 

Wyoming and its neighbor Utah generated 28 percent less megawatts on average throughout March 2020, when compared to the year prior, according to the Energy Information Administration data analyzed by the Sierra Club. 

However, it may be too soon to discern how much the pandemic has driven these fluctuations in air quality, and other forces likely need to be considered. An investigation by National Public Radio found the pandemic’s indirect influence on air pollution levels varied across the country, and their analysis found several factors at play. 

For one, the state’s coal mines and coal-fired power plants haven’t been operating at the levels they once did, due to declines in demand that began long before the pandemic hit the U.S. The data is preliminary, and more research is needed before any firmer conclusions can be made. 

But to Connie Wilbert, director of the Wyoming Sierra Club chapter, the message from Mitchell’s research is clear. 

“Pollutants are major contributors to a number of very serious human illnesses: asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses that are really devastating to many, many people,” she said. “And we know that nitrogen oxide contributes and exacerbates those diseases. It’s a huge pollutant that is (emitted) when burning coal.” 

The respite from polluted air quality could be an impetus to start making a controlled transition away from coal, she said. 

For Wyoming, weathering the structural declines whipping through coal country will be painful. The state’s economy has been intricately tied to coal for decades. Already the loss of mineral taxes has left the state scrambling to find other sources of revenue. 

Scientists are also hard at work in Wyoming trying to implement more pollutant controls and carbon capture to eliminate any harmful emissions coming from mining and burning coal. But a full-scale application of any new technology at Wyoming’s mines and plants will take time. In the meantime, the dip in demand for coal has translated into hundreds of jobless miners. This spring, coal firms laid off or furloughed over 550 miners throughout the Powder River Basin.

What’s more, the state’s largest utility, PacifiCorp, announced in October it would gradually retire two-thirds of its coal fleet by 2030, including many units in Wyoming. In other words, more layoffs will come. Last year, PacifiCorp also reduced its electricity output at its Jim Bridger coal-fired power plant in southern Wyoming in an effort to meet federal haze rules enforced by the state and avoid installing cost-prohibitive pollution controls. But doing so makes the electricity the facility does produce more expensive, a cost ratepayers often pick up down the road. 

To Wilbert, of the Sierra Club, these lessons from the pandemic go far beyond Wyoming’s borders. 

“Most of the coal that we mine actually goes out of state and it goes to much more populated areas,” she noted. “Many coal-fire power plants are built in communities that have the least ability to resist them, and that are the most impacted by them — that is, communities that have little resources to protect themselves.” 

She continued: “We cannot keep turning a blind eye, of how our actions here are affecting some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities across this country.”