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Smokestacks at the Cherokee generating station, Feb. 23, 2022, near Denver. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado will meet revised federal deadlines to strengthen regional haze plans that protect views in Rocky Mountain National Park and other western treasures, state officials and environmental groups say, sidestepping a new Sierra Club lawsuit demanding sanctions on Colorado and dozens more states. 

The Sierra Club lawsuit says the Environmental Protection Agency failed to enforce regional haze deadlines last year that required updates from states on improving air quality, and that the agency ignored a statutory deadline of Jan. 31 to formally call out the states as overdue.

But Colorado air pollution officials say they have submitted their regional haze improvement plan to the legislature for review, there have been no challenges raised at the Capitol, and the revisions will get to the EPA before the agency’s extended deadline in August

Environmental groups wanted the roadmap for haze improvements to be more robust, with earlier closures of coal-fired power plants, more controls on oil and gas production, and limits on three large cement kilns in Colorado. They achieved a victory in late 2021 at the Air Quality Control Commission, which went beyond the recommendations of Air Pollution Control Division staff and demanded more cuts to sulfur dioxide pollution produced at the Suncor Energy refinery. 

The National Parks Conservation Association, part of the coalition suing the EPA that includes Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters and WildEarth Guardians, said air pollution analysts are “pretty happy” with some of the updates to the Colorado haze restrictions. 

Still, the groups note, haze now impacts 90% of national parks, while Colorado officials have delayed other air pollution control measures including limits on commuting at large employers, requirements for fleet operators to run cleaner trucks, and tighter air pollution caps on the largest industrial sites. 

Meanwhile, the EPA has signaled its intent to downgrade Colorado’s North Front Range ozone nonattainment area to a “severe” violator from the current “serious” category, eventually requiring more cuts to the same kinds of pollutants that create regional haze.

“Bottom line, there are lots of opportunities for the state of Colorado to make progress on air quality, make quicker progress,” said Michael Hiatt, senior attorney with the Rocky Mountain office of Earthjustice. “So far, the state has seemed reluctant to take advantage of those opportunities. But we hope that that will change as the severity of the problem becomes more and more clear.”

Also laudable in the regional haze update, Hiatt said, is the inclusion of dates for voluntary closure of more coal-fired plants in the state. Listing them in the EPA filing makes the dates federally enforceable, Hiatt said. The list includes: Martin Drake Units 6 and 7, Comanche Unit 1 by Dec. 31; Craig Unit 1 and Comanche Unit 2 by Dec. 31, 2025; Craig Unit 2 by Sept. 30, 2028; and, Craig Unit 3, Nixon Unit 1 and Rawhide Unit 1 by Dec. 31, 2029.

Colorado environmental groups also noted the EPA’s recent expansion of its “good neighbor” air pollution limits beyond traditional eastern states following the policy, but did not predict imminent changes. The Clean Air Act allows the EPA to require pollution cuts in states upwind of Colorado if they are contributing to Colorado exceeding federal caps. The EPA said winds are bringing excess Wyoming pollution to Colorado, worsening the ozone. 

“That’s a new issue for the West, on a longer timeframe, and it could theoretically require some upwind states to reduce emissions,” Hiatt said. “But the vast majority of air quality improvements we need are going to have to come from actions the state of Colorado takes.”

The EPA’s regional haze rules are meant to protect and slowly improve sightlines at so-called “Class 1” outdoor attractions, from national parks to wilderness areas to important fish and wildlife areas, many of them in the West. “Regional” means states are instructed to look at all the big sources of pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that react in the air to create haze, on the understanding that smokestacks send plumes hundreds of miles across western open skies. 

States must develop an implementation plan showing how pollutants will be cut over time in a schedule set by the EPA that runs through 2064. The plans are allowed to incorporate expected haze reduction benefits from other state efforts, such as Colorado’s multiple greenhouse gas reduction laws of recent years. 

State air quality commissions can also use the regional haze update to issue new pollution-cutting regulations specifically to speed up haze reduction if technology and environmental lobbying pushes them to move faster. 

The changes required of Suncor could make a difference in Colorado air, Hiatt said. The state plan gives the oil refinery two ways to comply at its Sulfur Recovery Unit No. 3. It can “optimize” current operations by late 2023, reducing sulfur dioxide by an estimated 18 tons per year, or make an equipment retrofit by late 2028 that would reduce emissions by nearly 28 tons a year. 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...