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Environmental advocates call for state to take stronger actions to improve Colorado's air quality

Ozone plan protest
Posted at 4:46 PM, Dec 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-13 21:27:59-05

DENVER — The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission kicked off three days of hearings Tuesday over its plan to reduce ozone emissions in the state. The hearings will start with public input before the commission votes on whether the plan should be submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency for its approval.

The State Implementation Plan, otherwise known as a SIP, is federally required and outlines how the state plans on coming into compliance with the Clean Air Act.

The federal government’s 2008 clean air standards say the state must emit fewer than 75 parts per billion of ozone into the environment. However, that number was decreased in 2015 to 70 parts per billion. Colorado has been out of compliance with even the 2008 standards for roughly a decade.

This year, the Front Range was downgraded from a serious violator of the standards to a severe violator, the second worst level.

Under the state’s plan, Colorado would fall under the 2008 standards by 2027.

However, it will miss a 2024 deadline to reach the more stringent 2015 standards with the current strategy.

Environmental advocates say regulators are not moving quickly or aggressively enough and they want to see the plan do more to address the state’s poor air quality.

“We feel like we keep kicking the can down the road,” said Kirsten Schatz, a clean air advocate with the Colorado Public Interest Research Group Foundation. “This is a problem that we as individuals can't fix on our own. So we need public health officials and state leaders to step up and take the bold action needed.”

She would like to see the state take action to limit gas-powered lawn and garden equipment, which her report found contributes to high levels of ground-level ozone pollution.

Schatz would also like to see more done to cut emissions from the oil and gas sector.

Last month, air pollution regulators announced their intentions to withdraw part of the ozone air plan after discovering that they significantly underestimated oil and gas emissions.

The regulators were using data from 2017 on nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds coming from oil and gas operations. However, the number was divided by the number of new wells drilled in 2017 rather than the total number of wells. The true emissions numbers should be roughly double the estimates used in the state’s SIP.

After discovering the error, the state released a 10-page notice announcing its intentions to remove that part of the plan from its EPA submission but to move forward with the rest.

Clean air advocates say the error highlights the need for the state to rethink its plan.

The state, on the other hand, says even with the flawed data, the current plan will meet the 2008 ozone standards by 2027.

A group of about a dozen advocates stood outside the CDPHE headquarters Tuesday with signs to demand more be done, sharing their stories of how poor air quality has affected their health.

Shaina Oliver from Moms Clean Air Force says both she and her son suffer from asthma, so they have to stay inside on ozone alert days, which goes against the state’s outdoor spirit.

“We don't see too many blue skies anymore. It's really brown here in the metro area of Denver. And that has a great impact on my asthma, to where I have a hard time breathing a lot,” Oliver said.

Nikie Day from the Black Parents United Foundation, meanwhile, says she too suffers from asthma along with her son and she knows this disproportionately affect minorities in the state who live in areas with worse air quality.

She says for the sake of her health and that of her children, she wants to see the state take more aggressive steps.

“I am 43 years old, you know, and I'm affected by this the older I get. I was just in the hospital two months ago over an asthma attack. So, enough is enough,” she said.

In a statement, CDPHE said it is looking for even more ways to improve the state’s air quality beyond the SIP.

“The State Implementation Plans are one part of our many strategies to reduce ozone pollution in Colorado. We continue working with public and private partners and Colorado communities to incorporate and implement the best available science, air monitoring, and pollution control practices to advance clean air for all,” the statement read.

For Schatz, even if the current plan is passed, she hopes the commission will work quickly to amend it to add more rigorous standards.

The commission will listen to testimony over the next three days and is expected to vote on the plan on Friday.