EPA proposes downgrading North Front Range to 'severe' air quality violator

CDPHE officials say they welcome move in order to press changes for better ozone levels
Posted: 6:44 PM, Apr 12, 2022
Updated: 2022-04-13 20:40:37-04
front range ozone alert

DENVER – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing downgrading the northern Front Range ozone issues from “serious” to “severe” in a change that would require officials to cut emissions and pollution in the Denver metro region.

Colorado health and environment officials have been preparing for the EPA’s proposal after the nine-county region between Castle Rock and Fort Collins missed multiple deadlines over the past few years to bring ground-level ozone levels down to 2008 and 2015 standard thresholds, they said Tuesday. Colorado Public Radio first reported the proposal on Tuesday.

“We should protect our air. It's one of most important things in Colorado for everyone," said Jace Davis, who was riding his bicycle in Cheesman Park on Wednesday. “I'm very supportive of all measures that make our air cleaner, honestly.”

The 2008 ozone standard is 75 parts per billion, and the value for the Denver Metro North Front Range area in question based on a formula of data collected between 2018 and 2020 was 81 parts per billion. Since the area did not meet the standard, the EPA is proposing downgrading it from the “serious” nonattainment area to a “severe” nonattainment area.

Additionally, the EPA is proposing reclassifying the Denver Metro North Front Range from “marginal” to “moderate” based on the 2015 ozone standard, which was lowered to 70 parts per billion from the 2008 standard.

Along with the North Front Range, the Chicago area, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston area, and New York City area could all be downgraded to “severe” nonattainment areas, according to the EPA.

“Ground-level ozone remains one of the most challenging public health concerns we face, affecting large numbers of Coloradans and their families,” said EPA Region 8 Administrator KC Becker. “EPA’s proposed Clean Air Act reclassification for the Denver and North Front Range will make sure we are leveraging all available measures and resources as we move forward to reduce ozone pollution with the Colorado Department of Public Health and environment and all our partners.”

The proposed actions were published in the Federal Register (2008-based proposal | 2015-based proposal) on Wednesday, which opens a 60-day public comment period on each. The EPA also plans to hold a public hearing on both 25 days after publication, the agency said. It is expected to be published on Wednesday.

If the downgrades are approved, Colorado would have to use so-called “reformulated gasoline,” which is blended to burn more cleanly than typical gasoline, during the summer months effective a year after the reclassification is made, according to the EPA.

Reformulated gasoline is already used in 16 states and the District of Columbia, and the EPA says about one-quarter of the gas sold in the U.S. is reformulated.

Colorado's air quality problem and the EPA's potential crackdown, explained

According to AAA Colorado, reformulated gas typically would cost around 5-10% more than typical gasoline, with the highest prices in the summer months. A spokesperson said any price increases would be based off prices when potential changes are implemented.

"To increase gas prices for cleaner air, that's the question. That is a question I'm not sure if most people would want to get to that stage where, you pay a little bit more," said Gregory Lincoln, who was filling his car up at a Denver gas station on Wednesday.

However, some Denver residents said they would pay more at the pump, if it meant better air quality.

“We're already paying that cost with our health. I'd much rather have people pay more for luxury of riding in the car, as opposed to having terrible air quality," said Davis.

The downgrading would also require businesses to comply with more regulations on emissions, and some in the nine-county area would have to cut emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other pollutants that contribute to ozone from 50 tons per year to 25 tons per year.

The ozone forms from those pollutants that come from vehicles, power plants, oil and gas operations and many other industries, which are cooked by the sun to turn into ozone – which reaches its worst levels on hot and sunny days.

Elevated ozone levels can damage people’s airways, increase asthma attacks, and increase the likelihood people develop lung infections and diseases.

“The declaration is lagging behind what we've known in the air community for few years," said Dr. Anthony Gerber, who is a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health. “This sort of re-designation, that alone, doesn't do anything to help air quality. It has some extra tools that regulators can use, but there's also personal things we can do if we want to keep the Front Range beautiful and livable."

Dr. Gerber said that includes small choices, like deciding to carpool or riding a bicycle for transportation. He said personal lawn equipment are huge sources of ozone precursors that are largely unregulated, and upgrading to an electric lawnmower can help.

The Front Range saw a new record of ozone action alerts during 2021 and has often seen high number of ozone action days in years over the past decade. Combined with wildfire smoke from both inside Colorado and out of state, the ozone and particulate levels have created extremely poor air quality in the metro area several times over the past few years.

The EPA downgraded the Denver Metro North Front Range area from “moderate” to “serious” in 2019 after struggling to meet standards for more than a decade beforehand, and Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) said the change would “help us stop sweeping our air quality crisis under the rug and gives us additional tools to move urgently to make our air cleaner.”

Since then, the state has updated rules for low- and zero-emission vehicles, made more rules to cut more emissions, worked to close coal plants, and more.

The CDPHE said in a news release Tuesday that the new proposal decision means the state “will finally have the tools and personnel available to hold polluters accountable.”

Polis and the CDPHE have proposed $43 million to hire dozens of air monitoring employees and purchase more monitoring equipment, and is working on pushing measures through the legislature to electrify more school buses, increase the use of mass and multimodal transit, and reduce other sources of pollution.

“Over the last few years, we’ve done some really great work – implementing some of the most stringent regulations in the oil and gas industry in the country, zero low emission vehicle standards, securing legally enforceable closure dates for a lot of coal power plants,” CDPHE Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “But the thing is, these laws take time to implement, and because implementation doesn’t happen overnight, the state won’t see the full benefit of these actions yet. And probably not for a couple of years.”

Ryan and Michael Ogletree, the CDPHE’s director of the Air Pollution Control Division, said the CDPHE sees the proposal from the EPA as a good thing because it aims to improve the air quality.

“All of these different rules and regulations that are coming as a result of this reclassification are going to improve air quality,” Ogletree said.

He said part of the department’s $43 million proposal includes around $7 million for aerial- and ground-based air monitoring to have a better understanding of what ozone is coming from local sources and what is coming in from out of state.

“[It will allow us] to have a better understanding of what is coming in locally. With aerial monitoring we can take snapshots across these large areas. And then with the ground-based monitoring, we can ground-truth that information and continue to measure and monitor those ozone precursors as time goes on,” Ogletree said.

He also discussed some of the programs the administration is pushing this session to try to cut down on ozone levels during the summer.

“So there are some short-term things we’re looking at that would have immediate impact and really reduce some of those ozone precursors and really be as productive as we can, as quickly as we can, while also working towards those long-term strategies. …This is a big step in the right direction as we look to address air quality across the state.”