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Patrick Springer, Published December 21 2013

Concern grows over haze levels at ND national park

FARGO – Haze has become more noticeable in Theodore Roosevelt National Park and is the subject of increased monitoring and analysis.

Researchers from the National Park Service and Colorado State University are in the midst of a two-year study to determine haze levels in the park’s north unit, surrounded by intensive oil and gas development.

Preliminary findings show a sharp rise in ammonium nitrate, a fine particle that produces haze, as well as fine particles from ammonium sulfate and soot.

“Haze is a regional problem here, especially in the wintertime,” said Eileen Andes, chief of interpretation at the park, noting that the government is sharing its findings with state health officials.

“They’re concerned about the air quality as well,” Andes said.

National parks are subject to the most stringent air quality standards, and clear skies are a priority.

Haze and other air quality indicators have long been a concern around Theodore Roosevelt National Park and other park units in western North Dakota, including Fort Union and the Knife River Indian Village, where large, coal-fired power plants operate.

Now, with the dramatic increase in oil drilling and production, emissions are on the rise. Sources include drilling rigs, exhaust from the fleets of trucks servicing wells and the flaring of natural gas from wells that aren’t connected to collection systems.

“Haze has gotten a little bit worse,” said Bill Whitworth, chief of resources at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. “The haze – while it’s increasing – it’s not every day,” but a handful of days each year, he added. “That handful is getting a little bit bigger. It’s not an emergency, but it’s an emerging issue in the park.”

Air quality monitoring has been conducted routinely in the south unit of the park, where haze is less noticeable. But monitoring equipment now has been placed in the north unit for the haze study.

“We really are out there trying to establish some baseline information,” said John Vimont, who heads research and monitoring for the air resources division of the National Park Service. “We don’t know if we have a problem yet.”

Meanwhile, it appears that more stringent air quality standards for coal plants are working to decrease emissions from power plants in the region, Vimont said, adding that more results will be needed for a more definitive reading.

“It would appear these are helping reduce some of these concentrations,” Vimont said. “That’s a good news story, we think.”

Monitoring for the research project started last winter, from November through March, and resumed this winter for the same period. Results will be analyzed later next year, Vimont said.

Once the results are in hand, officials will determine what, if anything, should be done to try to improve the haze issue.

“Air quality, it’s generally very good still,” Whitworth said. “This is just a study we need to do to better understand what’s going on in the region.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522