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Coal stove and pile of coal
A coal-burning stove typical of many homes in China.

Multidisciplinary approaches

As with much of Carter’s research, the larger team she works with has taken a multidisciplinary approach to examining the coal ban effects, including gauging subjective well-being in addition to the physical presence of pollution. In the pilot program, for instance, the villages in or out of the coal ban in the high- and medium-income districts didn’t show any difference in well-being, but the village in the coal ban in the poor district reported significantly lower well-being than the village in the same district that was still using coal at the time of the pilot study. This was consistent with the team’s hypothesis that there could be distributional impacts of the policy, and those that were most marginalized socioeconomically may experience the greatest burden.

“Unfortunately, it’s perhaps not novel to learn that already marginalized or poorer communities are more heavily impacted when new policies like this one go into place, but it is an important result to communicate and process as we try to understand how household energy transitions work,” Carter said.

Carter has found this multidisciplinary approach, incorporating social science and epidemiology along with engineering, better addresses the complex societal problems she’s trying to solve.

“Being a part of these teams engages me to think outside of what might otherwise be the narrow scope of an air quality project, and integrate sociological and technological work in ways that we hope enhances the value of the work more broadly,” Carter said.

As an example, Carter cites temperature, which epidemiologists study as a risk factor for cardiovascular health, but may also relate to well-being through comfort.

“These health and well-being impacts bring a dimension to the work that enriches the value of my team’s focus on indoor environmental quality,” she said.

She continued: “We hope the coal ban brings about changes in outdoor air quality and changes in air pollution exposure that are reductions in those levels, but it’s also critically important to understand people’s experience in their homes. Do they feel better off? Are they better off? By what means are we measuring whether or not they’re better off? Having people on our team who can help assess the diversity of impacts that may be associated with a household energy policy like this is an incredibly awesome opportunity.”

Working with colleagues who are pulling for a similar outcome — high quality, policy-relevant science — and knowing that none of them could achieve those goals alone makes it easier to embrace the difficulties and challenges inherent in research, Carter said.

“We all believe that if we work together on this, we get to a result that has more meaning and impact in the world than if I just went off by myself and did some air quality measurements in China.”

— Jayme DeLoss, Colorado State University

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Md. to monitor air quality near poultry houses

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland will sample air on the lower Eastern Shore to examine the potential effects of large poultry houses on air quality.

The Department of the Environment announced Tuesday that monitoring stations will collect preliminary data on ammonia and particulate matter levels near poultry houses for comparison with air quality elsewhere in the state.

The Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment and Delmarva Poultry Industry have committed more than $500,000 to the effort and the department is responsible for technical aspects. The three parties signed a memorandum of understanding on Monday. After one year, the department will review results and consider relevant input on any further steps that might need to be taken.

The Associated Press

Seeking answers to air quality questions

DENVER — The City and County of Broomfield, like many parts of Colorado, is experiencing an oil and gas boom. With more than 80 new wells slated for drilling in Broomfield, city officials and many average citizens are seeking scientific answers to questions about air quality.

To get those answers, the city has awarded a three-year, $1.7 million contract to Ajax Analytics ­– a Colorado State University technology spinoff company – and a CSU Department of Atmospheric Science research group to provide new insight into emission sources, emission rates and health exposures related to oil and gas activities. Working together, the team will provide round-the-clock air monitoring and analysis. Their goals are real-time air quality awareness for Broomfield staff and citizens, and a comprehensive, multi-year report that paints a cohesive picture of local air quality.

Ajax Analytics, which has also worked with the City of Longmont this year, will maintain 17 sensor stations with continuously deployed sensors both near and downwind of planned oil and gas well pads to be operated by Denver-based Extraction Oil & Gas. Sensor networks and machine learning can detect subtle changes in the environment and allow for high-resolution grab samples and rapid investigation. This information will provide Broomfield and Extraction Oil & Gas with key insights to quickly find and resolve pollutant concerns.

Proof-of-concept to company

 Fort Collins-based Ajax Analytics grew out of the Colorado Water Watch, a CSU-led groundwater monitoring project funded by Noble Energy and the state of Colorado. The lead scientist on the Colorado Water Watch, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Ken Carlson, is Ajax Analytics’ chief scientific officer.

The Colorado Water Watch, which officially concluded in 2016, was a proof-of-concept initiative for using networked sensors in real-time environmental monitoring – in that case, of drinking water wells. According to Carlson, the real innovation is a generalized approach to using algorithms and modeling to make sense of large environmental datasets; Ajax Analytics is a data company – not tied to any specific type of environmental activity.

“As we said with the Colorado Water Watch, having that temporal coverage is really important,” Carlson said. “If you’re just going out and getting grab samples, you could miss a spike in contamination – which is especially true with air monitoring.”

Exposure concentrations

Joining these high-coverage efforts will be an experienced CSU research team led by Jeff Collett, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science, and co-investigator Arsineh Hecobian, a research scientist in atmospheric science. Collett and Hecobian have done extensive research measuring oil- and gas-related air emissions, including for a study in Garfield County. Collett’s team will focus on high-resolution measurements of potential exposure to benzene and other air toxics, including short-term exposures of about an hour.

Their experimental setup includes a vehicle-based mobile tracker that can follow and measure an emissions plume. The team will also perform canister-based air sampling a week at a time, using gas chromatography to report average concentrations of specific air toxics such as benzene and toluene.

While Ajax’s sensors will look for measurement variabilities that may relate to oil and gas activities, Collett’s approach is more traditional, quantitative and definitive. “We will have signatures from our analysis that will tell us, for example, ‘We see this much benzene, or these signatures of other volatile organic compounds,’” Collett said.

Together, the Ajax-CSU team should provide Broomfield with real-time, high-spatial coverage, and high-resolution visibility into air quality, while providing insight into which air toxics, if any, are attributable to oil and gas activities.

“We think the combination of our two datasets will provide a much better picture of what’s going on than just one or the other,” Carlson said.

Making sense of data

Ajax Analytics president Brent Buck, a CSU College of Business alumnus, said the company’s goal is to help average people make sense of otherwise incomprehensible troves of data. A citizen shouldn’t need an advanced degree to understand what they’re breathing, he said.

“Historically, air quality sample results don’t make sense to the average person,” Buck said. “Citizens don’t just need parts per billion of benzene in the air. They need context. How does the air quality near oil and gas activity compare to the local gas station? How is the air quality in my neighborhood? Is it worse? Better?  We hope that our data and insight will help Broomfield make changes that actually make a difference.”

Collett’s team will soon start capturing baseline data from at least four sites throughout Broomfield. The Ajax Analytics sensor network should be deployed and running by late October.

— Anne Manning, Colorado State University

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