Colorado air pollution officials need fiscal boost to tackle ozone


EPA’s downgrading of Northern Front ozone pollution from ‘severe’ to ‘severe’ on Tuesday will force hundreds of Colorado businesses to seek emissions permits from a critically overdue state system , but health officials say their demand for a big budget increase from lawmakers will eliminate the jam and improve the air.

State health officials said Tuesday they welcome the EPA’s announcement placing the Denver metro area and other major U.S. cities in a stricter enforcement category for ozone. , saying the long-awaited decision “would help build on Colorado’s strategies to protect and improve the air we breathe.” ”

The move means state permits will be required for another 473 pollution sources that contribute to ozone, as the threshold increases from 50 tons of covered pollutants per year to include all sources emitting 25 tons or more, Michael said. Ogletree, director of air pollution control. That will nearly triple the “primary source” locations that must be allowed, to a total of 730, state officials said.

Earlier, environmental nonprofit WildEarth Guardians said many sites now required to obtain permits would include the oil and gas industry, on drilling and gathering sites.

This new work will clash headlong with a state health permit system already beset by the courts and environmental groups for years, potentially endangering the health of more Coloradans living in high-density areas. polluted.

A set of permits at a key polluter, the Suncor Energy refinery in Commerce City, expired in 2012, and another in 2018, with a state court judge in January ordering officials from the Department of Public Health and Colorado Environment to complete permit renewals “without delay.” .” When the state issued a revised permit that it said imposed significant new restrictions on Suncor, the EPA regional office referred the proposed permit for stricter revisions in March.

State officials said Tuesday they have 52 major sources of polluters awaiting review for new permits or renewals. They say that’s a significant reduction from the 143 late permits in 2015.

“Our pollution control division is really at a point of transition,” CDPHE Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan said in an interview. “It has lacked resources for two decades. We are changing the way we fund it. And I’m on a mission to really modernize it and resize it to meet today’s air quality demands.

Gov. Jared Polis and the Health Department are asking the Legislature to approve more than $40 million in new general fund spending to quickly bolster the Air Pollution Division with new permit engineers, experts who will model expected pollution and experts to monitor existing pollution, according to Ryan and Ogletree. The increase in spending is aimed at clearing the backlog of overdue permit renewals and preparing for the onslaught from newly authorized sources, they said.

The boost will add more than 100 full-time positions to the understaffed division and enable expanded technology, including aerial surveillance of pollution sites, Ogletree said.

“We currently have a license database from the 1990s, and we have a multi-million dollar request to be able to upgrade it,” Ryan added.

A budget with whistleblowers in mind?

The lack of pollution modeling staff and allowing procedures that were too user-friendly for industrial polluters were among the criticisms leveled at the Health Department by internal whistleblowers in 2021. The whistleblowers, modeling staff from the Control Division air pollution, have asked the EPA’s Office of Inspector General to investigate, and the EPA’s detailed objection to Suncor’s permit indicates that federal officials are listening carefully.

Environmental groups that have demanded stronger and faster action from state health officials say they are cautiously optimistic about the increased budget and shift in direction from CDPHE leadership. They add that they are not about to let their guard down.

“Our state’s health care professionals see and treat the real health effects of poor air quality daily. They are unequivocal about the disastrous impacts of air pollution on community health,” said Sabrina Pasha, director of the nonprofit Healthy Air & Water Colorado. His group and others want the state to consider the cumulative effects of other polluters in the area when considering whether to approve each new permit.

“We also need an expansion of community monitoring so we know what’s in the air we breathe, not just in polluting facilities, but also in our neighborhoods,” she said. declared.

The 2022-2023 budget proposal “is an important first step” toward better air quality, said Jared Bynum, communities and justice advocate at Conservation Colorado.

Environmental advocates also point to some of the same elements of the state budget touted by air pollution officials, including spending millions of dollars to replace high-polluting diesel school buses with clean electric models. in the years to come. Better buses for schoolchildren, “so quiet and clean,” are important for communities heavily impacted by past pollution, Bynum said.

A state health department statement on the EPA’s ozone announcement noted the other cities whose problems are now reclassified as severe: Chicago-Naperville; Dallas-Fort Worth; Houston-Galveston-Brazoria; Morongo Band of Mission Indians, in the Coachella Valley area east of Los Angeles; and New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island.

Colorado air experts said the Denver metro area’s persistent ozone problems stem from a few major contributors: industrial and automotive emissions that haven’t been reduced as quickly as needed; hotter summers that increase the volatility of pollution; and, ozone-contributing wildfire smoke blowing eastward from a sharply growing number of superfires in states to the west and northwest.

Part of Colorado’s ozone deficit stems from changing EPA standards. While ozone levels in metropolitan areas are stubborn and rising, they are also coming up against increasingly stringent recommendations from scientists and doctors. The 2008 EPA standard of an average of 75 parts per billion dropped to 70 parts per billion in a 2015 review. Many Front Range pollution monitors frequently recorded over 80 parts per billion in the 2021 heat , according to state records.

Reducing ozone-causing pollutants often goes hand-in-hand with efforts to reduce Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions—mitigation policies can reduce both forms of pollutants at the same time. Yet state action to reduce vehicle emissions, for example, is meeting resistance from drivers and many businesses, and is being criticized by environmental groups as being too slow.

An ‘Advanced Clean Trucks’ rule requiring the phased replacement of fossil fuel engines with cleaner electric and hydrogen models has been delayed until 2023, though community and environmental advocates are now calling on the Control Board air quality to do so sooner. In 2021, state air pollution officials proposed a set of transportation rules for large employers aimed at reducing miles traveled, but withdrew the proposal after stiff opposition from employers and trade groups. .

While promoting changes in the new budget, state health officials say they also anticipate air quality improvements from a recent list of laws and departmental rules that have been adopted. They cite new limits on emissions from oil and gas operations, the continued shutdown of coal-fired power plants that are the state’s biggest polluters, increased sales of electric vehicles, and new rules from the US Department of Transportation. Colorado on reducing emissions when planning major highway projects. .

“We have so much to do with past legislation,” Ryan said. “We are going very fast and we are going to do everything. It just takes time.

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