It is a right for us to have clean air to breathe and not have to plead and fight for it with state agencies. It’s our right to walk outside our homes and breathe fresh air and not inhale ozone and other volatile organic chemical pollutants.
It is time we hold the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Air Quality Control Commission and the Governor accountable for failing to protect our air and public health along the Front Range.
There is a lack of accountability and concern from the health department about the human health impacts from ozone, especially for poor, disadvantaged populations. A reason for our air pollution problem is the lack of regulatory enforcement by the department’s Air Pollution Control Division. The record of air-quality non compliance speaks for itself, and the problem is not because of forest fires.
In 2008, the Environment Protection Agency categorized the front range ozone compliance as marginal non-attainment. It downgraded the rating to moderate non-attainment in 2016,then serious non-attainment in 2020, and severe non-attainment later that year. In July 2021, the state health department missed an EPA deadline to reach the attainment of ozone standards, thus maintaining the severe non-attainment category status.
There have been no apparent fines or ramifications from the ozone non-attainment — other than health impacts. Residents of the Front Range should be concerned about this lack of air quality improvement.
Despite the severe ozone non-attainment, there are new oil and gas permits being issued along the Front Range. There are approximately 633 approved oil and gas drilling permits and 60 permits pending in Weld County alone, according to the state Oil and Gas Commission. These oil and gas operations emit volatile organic compounds that are precursors to ozone and greenhouse gases.
At an Air Pollution Control Division meeting that I attended, a woman voiced her concern about the lack of air quality enforcement. The woman was frustrated as an oil and gas operation had moved into her immediate area and is ruining her and her sick husband’s quality of life by VOC emissions. She was told by the health-department official that the area is “being monitored.”
She asked the official “where is the environmental enforcement to stop the emissions? What am I supposed to do?” The official never provided an answer.
A former Air Pollution Control Division employee told Colorado Newsline that the agency allowed oil and gas companies to operate large drilling sites for up to 90 days without obtaining a permit. He said supervisors would question field observations and would change violation documentation.
“They would often say ‘Well, I don’t think this is a violation’ and basically make you take stuff out,” Newsline quoted Jeremy Murtaugh as saying. They would refer to the outfits being regulated as “customers,” prioritizing permitting over enforcement, he said.
The Air Quality Control Commission in December changed oil and gas greenhouse gas emission enforcement regulations with a focus on methane control. The commission believes that these new regulations allow oil and gas operators the flexibility to reduce emissions proactively and innovatively.
Oil and gas operators have neither the environmental ethic nor the credibility to be “proactive” and “innovative”. Oil and gas permittees now are given more freedom to determine how to meet methane regulatory “intensity targets,” which are not the same as specific emission limits.
These intensity targets are based upon greenhouse-gas emission per barrel of production; this is a measure of production efficiency and is a poor measure of compliance. It will take years for the Air Quality Control Commission to develop and implement an effective enforcement plan using this new regulation.
This intensity target approach has never even been tested in the US; its effectiveness is unknown. Don’t take it from me: “This thing will succeed or fail based on how we measure it,” air quality commissioner Elise Jones said at the commission’s December rule-setting session. The bottom line is that there will be less health-department enforcement and oversight of oil and gas operations.
There are many environmental professionals in the state health department who work hard and care about the environment despite limited financial and technical resources. They must be allowed to stand up to their management when permit non-compliances are ignored without job repercussions.
It is doubtful that air quality will improve to meet established ozone standards unless the Air Quality Control Commision and the Air Pollution Control Division improve enforcement. It is our right for clean air and healthy environment.
Art Hirsch, of Boulder, is a former environmental engineer.
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