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July 10, 2018, an ozone action alert day

Colorado environmental groups are warning the EPA they will sue the federal agency for missing a deadline to place northern Front Range counties in the “severe” category for ozone pollution.

Under Clean Air Act laws, the EPA should have placed nine Front Range counties in a more restrictive category requiring more pollution cuts by Jan. 20, according to the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians, which filed separate notices warning of their intent to sue. 

Stamping the northern Front Range with a “severe” ozone problem – similar to only a few metro areas in Southern California – would force immediate action on the oil and gas industry and other sources of ozone-causing emissions, WildEarth Guardians’ Jeremy Nichols said. 

Regional air quality officials said the “severe” designation would also trigger a federal requirement for all vehicle gasoline to be reformulated to be less volatile in summer months, possibly raising the cost, beginning in 2023. Other possible long-term recommendations to get back under EPA limits include restrictions on the sale of gas-powered lawn mowers and other 2-cycle engines, and incentives to trade in old ones.

“Sanctioning the state of Colorado is basically putting them in the doghouse and saying you’re not allowed out until you deal with this mess,” Nichols said.

In a statement responding to questions, the regional EPA office said its reports confirm the metro area has missed the standards. Clean Air Act decisions are based on three-year averages, and the latest 2018-20 average for the Denver Metro North Front Range area is 81 parts per billion, well over both the older 75 and the newer 70 parts per billion standard. 

“EPA intends to propose action on whether to “bump up” the (Denver-Metro-North Front Range) area to a ‘Severe’ nonattainment classification … as part of an upcoming national proposal for all air quality nonattainment areas across the U.S. expected within the next few months,” regional EPA spokesman Richard Mylott said.

The environmental groups’ notices to the state say they will move forward in court if action is not taken within two months.

Ozone problems linger on

Colorado state officials acknowledge the northern Front Range counties have failed to meet the 2008 EPA limit of 75 parts per billion in measured ozone, particularly in summer months when searing sun heats up volatile organic compounds and other components of the ozone mix. Wildfire smoke can make the volatile mix worse, but state officials have said they will not seek concessions because of increasing Western wildfires. 

An even stricter EPA standard of 70 parts per billion will kick in for 2023, and if Colorado fails to keep trimming pollution to get under the new limits, more sanctions would be coming. The northern Front Range nonattainment area is currently in the “serious” violation category. The area encompasses Denver, Boulder, Jeffco, Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas, Broomfield, Weld and parts of Larimer counties. 

The environmental groups said they are baffled at the EPA’s delay under a more green-friendly Biden administration, and that Gov. Polis and other state officials have signaled the downgrade to “severe” for the region was coming. Polis directed state agencies to not argue their way out of the downgrade, and instead redouble efforts to cut ozone-causing pollution. 

Ground-level ozone pollution irritates the lungs and contributes to asthma, causes other human health problems and damages vegetation. 

Given that state officials are prepared for the downgrade, said Center for Biological Diversity Colorado counsel Robert Ukeiley said, “it is absolutely inexcusable that EPA is illegally delaying these lifesaving protective measures.” 

One impact of the downgrade, WildEarth Guardians said, would be to require state air pollution permits for sources down to 25 tons of emissions per year, compared to the current floor of 50 tons per year. That would primarily impact the oil and gas industry at drilling and collection sites, they said. 

The Regional Air Quality Council, charged with planning for pollution improvements throughout the metro area, believes the EPA designation is forthcoming, and local agencies are moving ahead with proposed solutions, the air quality council’s executive director Mike Silverstein said. 

“They’re trying to accomplish national rulemaking. This can go a little slow sometimes, but we’re confident that they’re going to make that change,” he said. 

Timing of the designation is important, Silverstein added, for triggering the Clean Air Act provision that “severe” ozone areas must further reformulate their summer gas. Refineries will need time to have the reformulated gas on sale by 2023, he said. 

The extra refining required can raise the price per gallon, Silverstein added, but with wide fluctuations in gas prices from supply and demand changes year to year, the hikes could be difficult to discern. 

State and local officials are working on EPA-required plans to address both the 75 and 70 parts per billion ozone requirements. They intend to make cuts that would bring areas into attainment by 2026, he said. 

Other potential pollution control measures could target off-highway construction vehicles, Silverstein said, including diesel diggers, graders and bulldozers. The Air Quality Control Commission also has upcoming rulemaking decisions on cutting pollution from mid- and heavy-duty vehicles used in deliveries and various industries.

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver