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Southbound Interstate 25 traffic lanes bog down to a crawl at the interchange with Interstate 70 just north of downtown Denver, on July 11, 2019. In April 2022, the EPA downgraded the North Front Range nonattainment area from a "serious" ozone problem to a "severe" problem, and automobile traffic will be one factor Colorado has to address. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Environmental Protection Agency unlawfully approved a weak ozone-reduction plan from Colorado regulators, and should do far more to limit oil and gas drilling and other pollution in the Denver metro area, according to a new lawsuit filed Tuesday by the Center for Biological Diversity. 

The lawsuit demanding the EPA reject Colorado’s state implementation plan notes Denver and the counties in the north Front Range nonattainment area for ozone are violating EPA standards at a record pace in recent summers. (State air quality officials issued an ozone action alert again Tuesday afternoon warning of potentially irritating amounts, in effect through Wednesday afternoon.)

The state’s plan is ineffective and has loopholes that allow for smaller sources of ozone-causing pollution, like individual drilling and fracking operations, to move forward even as ozone gets worse, the lawsuit said. 

“We’re never going to solve our smog problem until the EPA cracks down on Colorado allowing unlimited air pollution from drilling and fracking,” said Robert Ukeiley, a senior attorney at the center. “If it takes a lawsuit to bring about that fix, that’s what we are going to do.”

Ground-level ozone, caused by a mixture of volatile organic compounds, wildfire smoke, vehicle pollution and increasingly hot and sunny summer days, causes asthma and other respiratory and heart problems in adults and children. 

“Every additional day of delay in reducing smog puts more children and families at risk for potentially deadly diseases,” Ukeiley said, in a release accompanying the lawsuit filing.

The EPA said it will not comment on pending litigation. In a Federal Register notice included in the lawsuit, the EPA in May approved Colorado’s state implementation plan and said the Clean Air Act did not give the EPA powers that the Center for Biological Diversity asked it to exercise. 

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association slapped back at the suit Tuesday. 

“As Colorado families struggle to pay to fuel their vehicles and afford their rising utility bills, this latest lawsuit from environmental activists shows just how extreme and out of touch they are with Coloradans. The majority of emissions within our region come from natural biogenic matter or they blow in from outside of Colorado,” trade association President Dan Haley said. “While Colorado’s oil and natural gas workers have cut our emissions in half, these environmental groups will continue to celebrate higher energy costs for Americans and push our energy dependence overseas.”

In 2021, 12 monitoring sites on the Front Range recorded a three-year average over the EPA’s most recent cap of 70 parts per billion for ozone, and five sites violated even the EPA’s previous looser standard of 75 ppb, according to annual reports by state and regional pollution officials last fall. 

The lawsuit targets the EPA for failing to require Colorado to account for ozone contributions by minor sources of pollutants, or from temporary sources. Colorado officials are now working on revisions to the implementation plan for more recent violations, after the EPA earlier this year declared “severe” ozone nonattainment in the north Front Range counties. 

The designation was a downgrade from “serious” nonattainment in previous years, and will now require changes like switching to reformulated gasoline for metro area drivers. Other changes will include a broader number of air pollution sources falling under state permitting requirements. 

The state is also working on a separate set of clean air measures, including the 2022 legislature approving funding for a month-long free transit fare package to cut commuting this summer, replacing diesel school buses with electric models, and beefing up permitting and enforcement staff at the state air pollution division.