Polis administration tackles Front Range’s chronic ozone problem

Once again, the American Lung Association has given Boulder County an F on ozone pollution.

Ozone is a big problem along the Front Range, at least partially because of the very qualities that most attract people to Colorado: proximity to the mountains and copious amounts of sunlight. Ozone is created when various pollutants mix with sunlight. Then, ozone-laden air becomes trapped against the mountains.

In another irony, outdoor exercise — another favorite Front Range pastime — can make the health effects of ozone worse, according to the American Lung Association. Young children, people who are older than 65 and those with asthma and other chronic lung conditions are also at greater risk.

Boulder County is not alone in the state in not meeting federal standards for ozone.

“The non-attainment area (for ozone) now expands from Denver to Fort Collins,” said Cindy Copeland, air quality specialist for Boulder County Public Health.

In 2018, Colorado requested and was granted an extension to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2008 standard for ozone. Gov. Jared Polis is taking a more aggressive approach to meeting ozone standards, withdrawing the extension request to spur faster compliance and setting a goal for Colorado to meet federal standards by mid-2021.

Where do ozone-creating pollutants come from?

“The two biggest contributors are oil and gas development, largely in Weld County, that (releases) volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere and motor vehicles all over the metro area, which release nitrogen oxide (NOx),” said Will Toor, who heads the Colorado Energy Office under Polis.

New regulations will look at the whole cycle of oil and gas drilling with the goal of reducing emissions, Toor said. In addition, the administration is working to get more people out of their cars and move the state to 100% renewable energy in the next few decades.

Wildfires also contribute to ozone, said Boulder County’s Copeland, making it even more important for the state to reduce the emissions it can more easily control.

On the positive side, power plant emissions have dropped as less coal is being burned, and autos have also gotten cleaner in the last decades. Those gains have largely been erased by the increase in new residents and more cars along the Front Range, along with the ramping up of oil and gas production. The area was compliant in the late 1990s, Copeland said, but the standard was tightened in both 2008 and 2015, pushing the Front Range back into non-compliance.

The Polis administration believes its more aggressive approach, which will look at all the contributors to ozone, will pay off. Such things as lowering VOCs in paint and adhesives and working to reduce VOCs from various other sources — including from the state’s largest breweries — will make a difference, along with the larger actions, Toor said. “Little pieces add up to something more significant moving forward,” he said.

by Cindy Sutter