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Hazy and polluted air over the Denver skyline as seen from Speer Boulevard
As traffic rolls along Speer Boulevard in the foreground, the skyline is shrouded as pollution fills the air Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The northern Front Range’s newest plan to meet federal ozone-reduction mandates comes with a rare upfront admission that it won’t work. 

The Regional Air Quality Council, a nonprofit board of experts and local officials charged with writing the state’s ozone compliance plan, will decide Friday on the latest proposals for trimming the hazardous ground-level gas. Colorado’s nine northern Front Range counties now have two EPA standards to meet in the state plan: A 2008 ceiling of 75 parts per billion ozone, and, as medical science cracked down on the health impact of ozone, a tougher 70 ppb ceiling set in 2015. 

The nine counties east of the Front Range, from Douglas on the south to Weld on the north, are constantly violating both limits during hot, sun-baked summers, despite years of new oil and gas drilling regulations and improved automobile technology. There were 75 Ozone Action Day Alerts issued in 2021, and environmental groups point to continuing readings above the EPA limits at monitoring stations this summer. 

In briefing reporters about the proposed ozone plan RAQC will consider, RAQC staff acknowledge that even the new proposals will not make enough cuts to meet the tough 2015 standards by a 2024 EPA deadline, “just two short years” away.

“It’s not possible to get us into compliance by the next due date,” Executive Director Mike Silverstein said. 

So do better, a coalition of environmental groups and local air pollution officials responded in their own briefing on the proposed implementation plan. Deadlines on past state plans have come and gone, they point out, and the EPA continues to downgrade the region’s ozone results

The draft State Implementation Plan for limiting ozone by the Regional Air Quality Council includes charts showing how the northern Front Range is falling farther behind tough federal standards for the hazardous substance. The dotted red line shows how the EPA standard got even tougher in 2014, and the Chatfield Park monitoring site shows increases, not the needed decreases, in recent years. (RAQC Draft State Implementation Plan slides, August 2022)

The briefings came amid consecutive days of Ozone Action Alerts for the northern Front Range, advising those with asthma or other sensitivities to be cautious about outdoors work or exercise. Those alerts have continued with heat spikes during the week starting Aug. 1. 

The EPA has already signaled it will lower the region from “serious” nonattainment to “severe” nonattainment. That will trigger a few mandatory measures, including requiring all regional gas retailers to use reformulated fuel releasing fewer volatile organic compounds. It will also lower the threshold for when industrial pollution emitters must get a state permit and the accompanying oversight, to 25 tons per year from 50 tons. 

Still not enough, both briefings acknowledged. 

The coalition for a crackdown is asking the public to rally with comments before the RAQC decision Friday, and for the subsequent review of the plan by the state’s Air Quality Control Commission. After the RAQC passes on the State Implementation Plan, or SIP, for ozone attainment, the blueprint goes to the Air Quality Control Commission and then the EPA. 

Members of the coalition want: 

  • Meaningful caps on total vehicle miles traveled in the region that ratchet down over time. One way to go after vehicle miles traveled is through rules requiring large employers to reduce driving by their fleets and by their commuting employees.
  • Summer timeouts for oil and gas drilling activity that they say is one of the worst contributors to ozone-creating gases. 
  • Strict emission limits on largely unregulated small engines burning fossil fuels, like lawn mowers and leaf blowers, and accelerated rebate or exchange programs for electrified versions. 
  • Stricter emissions limits or outright denials of air pollution permit applications from large polluters like Suncor’s fuel refinery in Commerce City.

There is some theater and wishful thinking involved in the dueling briefings. The RAQC doesn’t have the power to carry out its ozone-cutting suggestions. That power resides in rulemaking by the Air Quality Control Commission and other state agencies and local governments. 

But bolstering the ozone fight has to start somewhere, the environmental coalition argues, and public hearings on a new state plan are the best opportunity.

“It does feel like there is a real moment here” with the pending improvement plan, CoPIRG’s Danny Katz said, speaking for the coalition. “We can’t really afford another few years of not being proactive.”

Local governments have been involved with RAQC’s strategy groups to develop the plan and have pushed for many of those additions, said Ean Tafoya, Colorado director of GreenLatinos. “Even though the control strategy workgroups have met regularly since September 2021, none of the measures considered by those workgroups will be included in the SIPs,” Tafoya said. 

The public can follow the RAQC’s deliberation and decision here. A public comment session is scheduled for 10:25 a.m. Friday. The AQCC plans to weigh in on the plan with public hearings in the fall. Finally, the regional EPA office, which has shown a willingness to prod the state to faster action under director KC Becker, has the power to approve the plan or seek revisions.

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...