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Downtown Denver’s skyline is pictured from along Federal Boulevard and Route 36 in Westminster on May 13, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Metro Denver ranks 10th among most ozone-polluted cities in the country, according to the American Lung Association. Fort Collins is ranked No. 19. 

Colorado has been making progress to clean up its air over the past decade by enacting stricter oil and gas regulations and automobile emissions standards, but the Front Range is still out of federal compliance for ozone standards –– and has been since 2012. 

The state has until June 2021 to meet a ground-level ozone compliance deadline of 75 parts per billion standard set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and though air quality improved during the months of March, April and May in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the state is still unlikely to meet the deadline.

With Pikes Peak looming in the distance, traffic flows along Federal Boulevard in Westminster on May 13, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

To meet the federal requirements, every monitoring site –– there are 16 up and down the Front Range –– must have a three-year average that is below the standards of 75 parts per billion, according to Michael Silverstein, director of the state’s Regional Air Quality Council.

If the state fails to meet the standard, Colorado will be put into a “severe nonattainment” category and industries will face a more stringent federal regulatory regimen. “If one monitoring site fails, the rest of them pay,” Silverstein said. “Everybody will get more rules and regs to get us under that 75 mark.”

Researchers at the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division released a brief analysis last month showing slight improvements to air quality during March, April and May compared to the same months last year, thanks in part to significantly fewer commuter cars out on the roads.

MORE: Front Range air quality is terrible, but Colorado’s efforts are showing some improvement in ozone pollution

“I think one of the things that this COVID-19 disaster has provided us is a view into how critical transportation-related emissions are,” said John Putnam, the director of environmental programs for the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment. “And the effects of our personal decisions.”

Putnam said the reduction in emissions as schools were closed and those who were able worked from home was unprecedented. “The only other time that something similar might have been seen was after 9/11 in 2001,” he said. “It’s really been the biggest drop we’ve seen in a short amount of time.”

John Putnam, director of environmental programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, announces its $9 million settlement with the Suncor Oil Refinery in Commerce City for air quality violations dating back to 2017. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

But it’s yet to be determined if overall air quality will improve as a result of the government actions that ordered and then encouraged Coloradans to stay home. And it’s unclear if the decrease in emissions will help the state meet its compliance deadline.

“We had pretty bad air quality in 2018 for a lot of different reasons, bad background pollution, bad weather, a lot of things,” Putnam said. “We had better data last year, but we still had some violations. We will have a better sense by the end of the summer where we are at.”

Air quality bills push through despite upended legislative session

Three bills aimed at improving Colorado’s poor air quality passed in the final days of Colorado’s tumultuous legislative session, though significantly slimmed down compared to when they were first introduced. 

The bills, if signed by Gov. Jared Polis, will create a new “enterprise” to fund air quality research, increase maximum fines for air and water quality violations, and require community members to be immediately notified when a pollution “release” occurs at a nearby industrial facility. 

Senate Bill 204, which still needs a signature from Polis, creates a TABOR-exempt enterprise to conduct research, using fees paid by polluters, to help public health officials better understand how to improve air quality on a local and regional level. 

Rep. Adrienne Benavidez joins other members and guests in the House chambers as the second regular session of the 72nd Colorado General Assembly convenes at the Colorado state Capitol on Jan. 8, 2020, in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I think that in a year that has been upended by coronavirus, and we’ve had to slash our budget by 25%, that this bill is going to be particularly impactful because it basically funds itself,” said state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat who sponsored the bill with Sen. Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, and Rep. Dominique Jackson, an Aurora Democrat. 

“CDPHE hasn’t been able to do the necessary research to really figure out why our air quality is so poor and what we need to do about it because they’ve been traditionally underfunded,” Caraveo said. 

Another measure, House Bill 1265, requires community members to be notified, and data to be made available, when a pollution “release” occurs at a nearby industrial facility. 

MORE: 10 major issues being decided in the final hours of Colorado’s 2020 legislative session

“The original intent of the bill was to be able to start monitoring the emissions of those toxic chemicals and to be able to, once we have some data as to how much is truly emitted by those various facilities, to set health impact standards,” said state Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Commerce City Democrat. “Unfortunately, with our budget issues, we couldn’t do that right away.”

In December, the Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City had an unanticipated release of chemicals that resulted in the lockdown of two nearby schools. “People just need to be made aware as soon as they happen,” said Benavidez, adding that she plans to bring another bill next session to tackle the parts that got stripped out this year.

Suncor’s refinery, located in Commerce City, near Denver, is the largest refining operation in the Rocky Mountain region with a capacity of 90,000 barrels per day. (Photo by Suncor Energy, via Flickr)

The final bill, House Bill 1143, will triple to quadruple penalties for future air and water quality violations. The measure calls for the fees –– which hadn’t been increased in 25 years –– to be annually adjusted by the Department of Public Health and Environment. 

Caraveo, who is a pediatrician, said that prioritizing air quality is all the more relevant as the state continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.

MORE: Suncor oil refinery agrees to $9 million settlement with Colorado for air quality violations in Commerce City

“For decades we’ve known that the areas that are more heavily impacted by industrial pollution and air pollution also happen to be in areas where brown and black people live,” Caraveo said, adding that there’s emerging research that shows a correlation between chronic exposure to air pollution and higher rates of death from the coronavirus. 

“What we do know is that any condition that damages, or compromises your lungs, is going to make it more difficult for you to get through a coronavirus infection without serious complications,” Caraveo said.

Three months of less driving won’t fix Colorado’s air quality woes

Frank Flocke knew air pollution was increasing at the end of May just by listening. He could hear a growing number of cars speeding down the busy Foothills Parkway from his home office in Boulder.

“It was really quiet here for six weeks, but it’s started to pick up again,” said Flocke, an atmospheric chemist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. “I can tell just from that. I don’t even need to look at the data.”

Flocke, who started studying air quality in the 1980s, said that if you look at NO2 data alone for the past few months, he estimates there has been an approximate 25% decrease compared to pre-coronavirus times. But he said more research needs to be done. He said there was about a 50% decrease in the number of cars on the road, and those emissions have already started to climb back up.

An oil well pumpjack is pictured against the backdrop of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains on June 5, 2020, in Weld County. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“So traffic volume is down, but the emissions weren’t down that much,” Flocke said, adding that one reason for this might be that the vehicles on the roads were trucks and delivery vehicles. “And those are the ones that disproportionately emit more compared to commuter vehicles,” he said.

Though the past few months have been an unprecedented research opportunity, Flocke hopes he doesn’t have the chance to do it again. “Hopefully there isn’t a second wave, because we really don’t want to do this experiment again,” he said.

Researchers also observed a drop in oil and gas activity, and fewer emissions from power plants as the economy slowed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But the data is still preliminary. 

“A number of the [oil and gas] companies are shutting in wells and they’ve certainly stopped a lot of the drilling,” Putnam said. “So that’s going to make a difference at least this summer, depending on what happens with demand and oil prices and investment and all of those issues.”

To evaluate the changes in air quality, CDPHE researchers looked at various air pollutants at five air monitoring sites in the metro Denver area and compared it to data from 2019. They found declines in levels of nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, as well as smaller declines in particulate matter at “most monitors.” But it’s difficult to compare data from, say, last April to this April because air quality is highly dependent on weather conditions.

“We can have low emissions, but if we have terrible meteorology –– if we have those super hot, dry summer days and we have lots of them –– those are the perfect ozone generating conditions,” said Silverstein, whose team, in partnership with CDPHE, is responsible for developing strategies to get the state back into compliance with federal ozone standards.

MORE: A tiny garden in Boulder is showing signs of stress from smog. The scientist behind it is thrilled.

Ground-level ozone, which is the biggest air quality challenge for Colorado, is a secondary pollutant, meaning it is formed in the atmosphere by multiple sources of pollution.

The invisible gas is one of six main air pollutants monitored by the EPA and forms when nitrogen oxides (NOx), emitted from cars and industrial sources, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) –– emitted from oil and gas operations, factories, wildfires, cleaning solutions and paints  –– chemically react with sunlight and high temperatures. That is why ozone fluctuates seasonally, and typically peaks in the summer months.

There is also “background” ozone, which is naturally occurring in the environment. “Wildfires, tree emissions and plant emissions, all these things help form ozone,” Silverstein said. “But humans really drive it to the greatest extent.”

Putnam said in the short term, the bills passed during the legislative session won’t help them get to the finish line. But it’s important to have things in the pipeline. He hasn’t lost all hope, but he said it will be tough to meet the standards in time.

“It depends on the decisions that we make in the next few months in terms of what will happen this summer,” Putnam said. “We can’t control what’s coming in from elsewhere, and it looks like it’s going to be a dry season, which means more risk of forests burning, which increases the risk of ozone and particulate matter.”

Moe Clark is a former Colorado Sun writer. She left the publication in June 2020. Email: Twitter: @moe_clark15