Utes to track air’s quality

Monitoring station to measure levels of particulate matter

The Ute Mountain Ute tribe has secured $45,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency to install an air-quality and meteorological station in Towoac.

Two coal-fired power plants in New Mexico are within 100 miles of the reservation and bring pollution to the area, especially visible in winter months.

“The tribe has a vision of monitoring their air shed so assessments can be made on development and community health,” said Mike King, an air-quality specialist recently hired by the Ute Mountain Tribe.

King, who is Navajo, worked for five years at the nearby Southern Ute tribe setting up and managing its air-monitoring program. He recently earned a master’s degree in atmospheric science from Purdue University.

“We will be monitoring for particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur and lead,” King said Wednesday during a public meeting on environmental issues in Towaoc.

“It’s important to understand air-quality status because pollutants have health impacts to the community when toxins are inhaled. Pollution also inhibits visibility,” he said.

The exact location of the air-monitoring station is being determined. For effective readings, stations need to be located in remote areas, have 270-degree unobstructed air flow and be a certain distance from roads and development.

In 2012, the Ute Mountain tribe also installed an air-quality monitoring station in White Mesa, a satellite reservation community in southeastern Utah.

The unit is unique because it is designed to collect radionuclide material, and was installed to monitor air quality coming from the White Mesa uranium mill located nearby.

The tribe has filed protests critical of the mill’s operations and claims it has uncontrolled environmental hazards. It is the only operating uranium mill in the country and is regulated by the Utah Department of Health and Environment.

“The tribe decided to take it upon themselves to develop our own methods of monitoring air quality and pollutants in the White Mesa community,” said Scott Clow, environmental programs director for the Ute Mountain Tribe.

The specialized unit is situated south of the uranium mill and acts like a precisely calibrated vacuum, Clow said. It triggers on once a week to collect a certain volume of air that passes through several filters.

The filters are sent off to a lab to detect radioactive substances, and the data is returned to the tribe for analysis. So far, 60 filters have been sent back from the lab and are being reviewed, but results have not been made public.

“We worked very hard to gain approval from the EPA for this type of air-quality monitor, and it is the only radionuclide air monitor on Indian Country in the nation,” Clow said.

jmimiaga@cortezjournal