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Denver’s ozone pollution prompts environmental policy concerns

Author: Tom Ramstack - May 2, 2018 - Updated: May 10, 2018

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The Denver skyline with Union Station in the foreground. (Photo by twilightproductions, istockphoto)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — An Environmental Protection Agency announcement Tuesday declaring Denver to be out of compliance with federal ozone standards is being used by some Colorado political leaders and environmentalists to criticize the Trump administration.

The designation means Colorado officials must put together a plan to explain how they will meet federal air quality standards. Otherwise, the EPA could obtain an injunction and assess penalties against the state.

The EPA determined Denver’s non-compliance based on 2015 Obama administration Clean Air Act regulations that President Donald Trump seeks to eliminate.

The Denver area’s ozone concentrations have been falling in recent years but still are above federal standards. The 2015 revision lowered the acceptable ozone standard from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion. The EPA designated Denver and the North Front Range as an ozone nonattainment area before Tuesday’s announcement.

“We expected this new designation,” said Jacque Montgomery, press secretary for Gov. John Hickenlooper. “Air quality is improving and cars, trucks and industry are getting cleaner, yet a growing economy and growing population bring new sources of emissions to the state.”

State officials are “using a combination of rules and non-regulatory measures to cut ozone,” she said.

Some Colorado political leaders expressed dissatisfaction with the state’s low rating for ozone emissions but even harsher criticism for President Donald Trump’s environmental policies.

Colorado U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette described the non-attainment declaration as a step toward cleaner air for Colorado at a time at which the EPA is undoing air quality protections.

“Under [EPA] Administrator Scott Pruitt, the EPA has been rolling back regulations and initiatives to protect our air quality,” said DeGette, D-Denver. “The agency is working to gut the Clean Power Plan, created in 2015 to reduce carbon emissions from power plants and to increase use of renewable energy.”

However, she did not dispute that the Denver area has pollution problems.

“Ozone concentration exceeds safe levels in several of our counties, including right here in Denver,” DeGette said. “We all know the impact of pollutants thanks to the Brown Cloud on days when there’s an inversion and it’s impossible to ignore.”

Unlike hydrocarbon pollutants that cause the Brown Cloud, ozone is invisible, creating a hidden danger for residents.

“This is especially true for high-risk groups, including the more than 140,000 children, 75,000 seniors and 62,000 people with asthma in my district alone,” DeGette said.

In advance of the EPA announcement Tuesday showing that 51 areas in 22 states fail to meet air quality standards, Trump ordered the EPA to try to cooperate with states whose metro areas fail clean air standards. Trump said his goal is “promoting domestic manufacturing and job creation.”

He called some Clean Air Act air quality regulations “unnecessary and outdated barriers to growth.”

The EPA issued the list of non-attainment areas for clean air only after losing a court battle.

The Trump administration’s EPA was planning to overlook enforcement of the air quality rules until 16 state attorneys general sued last fall to force the agency to administer the pollution standards.

A federal court in San Francisco ruled in March the EPA must implement the 2015 ozone standards by April 30.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Lakewood, said, “Since taking office, the Trump Administration has reversed multiple major initiatives to combat climate change, including weakening air pollution regulations and enforcement. This not only hurts our climate, but it hurts our economy, jobs and jeopardizes a healthy planet for future generations. The EPA should be making policy based on science and facts, not on politics.”

Garrett Garner-Wells, director of the environmental group Environment Colorado, added, “The EPA’s recent designation of the Front Range as an ozone non-attainment area isn’t news to residents who contended with 176 dirty air days in 2015. But instead of taking concrete steps to combat pollution and clean up our air, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is taking us backwards to the bad old days of the Brown Cloud by rolling back clean air standards and the Clean Power Plan.”

Sophia Guerrero-Murphy, energy advocate for the environmental group Conservation Colorado said, “Our top priority must be to address pollution from its two leading sources: energy production and transportation.”

Tom Ramstack

Tom Ramstack