EPA mulls further delays to rein in Front Range ozone as residents voice health concerns 

Residents told the EPA that ozone is having an impact on their health, exacerbating asthma and helping to cause a heart attack

Photo of smoggy downtown Denver skyline via the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Air Pollution Control Division, Technical Services Program, Wednesday, March 6, 2019.
Photo of smoggy downtown Denver skyline via the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Air Pollution Control Division, Technical Services Program, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. The EPA downgraded the region to a "serious" violator of the Clean Air Act on Dec. 16, 2019.

The Environmental Protection Agency is poised to order a crackdown on polluters in the northern Front Range who contribute to the region’s unhealthy levels of ozone, a gas linked to heart attacks, asthma and respiratory health problems. But, given the Trump administration’s penchant to roll back pollution checks on automobiles and oil and gas operations, which are two top contributors to ozone in the Front Range, environmental groups are not holding their breath. 

A three-member panel of EPA’s region eight office held a public comment hearing Friday in downtown Denver to gather feedback on a plan to designate the northern Front Range in “serious” violation of federal air quality regulations for ozone. The designation could lead to more stringent permitting requirements for hundreds of oil and gas operations that contribute to the nine-county region’s poor air quality, according to state officials. 

During the hearing, representatives for the oil and gas industry asked the EPA to hold off on making the designation. Buying more time could allow the region to come into compliance with fewer regulations. The new regulations could slow down drilling permit applications, said Andrew Casper, director of legal and regulatory affairs for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. This would be a damper for the $31 billion industry. 

Despite the pleas for more time, it’s almost certain the new regulations will be imposed. The federal Clean Air Act provides little wiggle room when a state continues to violate air quality standards for ozone. The northern Front Range has failed to meet outdated 2008 ozone standards since 2004.

But the EPA can still allow the state more time to come into compliance by delaying the formal designation. And the industry’s economic concerns could encourage the agency to grant that extra time. 

“I think you heard this morning that deadlines can affect economic issues: If we move too quickly, it becomes costly or potentially unreasonable. We’ll consider that,” Carl Daly, the EPA’s regional air and radiation division director, told The Colorado Independent. 

But residents told the EPA they are tired of waiting. On the sidewalk outside the agency’s regional headquarters in downtown Denver, protesters chanted “Hurry the F up, this is serious” and “Downgrade without delay.” They wore T-shirts that displayed an “F,” in reference to the America Lung Association’s rating for the air quality in several counties along the Front Range. 

Inside the hearing room, a nurse from Erie told EPA air quality officials she regularly treats children with respiratory health issues. A woman from Denver said her husband, an ultrarunner, had a heart attack when he was 41 years old. Miguel Ceballos Ruiz, a resident of Denver’s Montebello neighborhood, told the EPA he will never forget the first time his younger brother had an asthma attack. He remembers helping him to use an inhaler as his brother struggled to speak and tears rolled down his face. He said days when the air quality is poor, his brother stays inside. Pollution stemming from I-70 traffic and the nearby Suncor oil refinery wafts into the neighborhood, he said, which is majority Latino. 

“The wind blows west, into Commerce City, and into my community,” Ceballos Ruiz said. “Environmental racism is alive and well here in the Front Range.” 

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The EPA already missed a deadline this year, prompting a lawsuit in March by WildEarth Guardians aimed at moving along the formal designation. Other environmental groups have threatened similar lawsuits in other states, claiming delays violate the Clean Air Act’s deadlines. In Colorado’s case, EPA attorneys acknowledged they broke the law, according to Colorado District Court filings. 

“It would be laughable that the government is taking this long to determine if the number 79 is higher than the number 75 but for the fact that children are getting poisoned,” said Robert Ukeiley, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. 

Ukeiley was referring to the recorded ozone levels in the northern Front Range. The 2008 ozone concentration limit is 75 parts per billion, though the EPA dropped that limit to 70 parts per billion in 2015. 

Despite delays, the state is already taking steps to rein in air pollution.

This year, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 181, which could lead to more stringent limits on pollution from drilling. In August, the state’s Air Quality Control Commission ordered that at least 5% of new automobiles sold in Colorado must be electricity-powered by 2023. Earlier this year, Gov. Jared Polis withdrew a request for a year-long EPA extension to come up with a plan to reduce ozone, essentially welcoming the federal regulations. The administration also withdrew an exemption to account for polluted air that wafts in from other states and countries, which also contributes to the region’s ozone. 

Garry Kaufman, director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air Pollution Control Division, said in a statement that the state should be able to come up with a plan to slash ozone concentrations by the proposed Aug. 3, 2020 deadline. According to the EPA’s proposed order, the state would have until July 20, 2021 to meet the air quality standards. 

By letting non-compliance drag on at the behest of industry, as environmental advocates allege, the EPA is playing with fire. The Clean Air Act has provisions that make regulations incrementally more stringent if states continue to fail to comply. 

“Each ‘bump up’ imposes more complexity and more burdensome regulations,” Jeremy Nichols, a lawyer with Wildearth Guardians, told The Colorado Independent. “If you want your job to get easier, then start doing your job.”

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This story was updated Saturday, Sept. 7 with additional details from the hearing.