A 90-degree haze of wildfire smoke and other pollutants hung over Colorado’s mountain valleys and cities Thursday, increasingly beyond the control of state government officials, who inched forward in their efforts to make improvements to future air quality.
Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission, appointed by Gov. Jared Polis, unanimously approved a state health department proposal Thursday to satisfy an Environmental Protection Agency requirement to address controllable sources of that haze by counting utilities’ already-planned closures of coal-fired power plants by 2036.
Then, next year, the commissioners will consider tighter controls on industrial plants not scheduled for closure, including cement factories and the Suncor Energy refinery north of Denver.
The EPA regional haze rule says states must submit plans to reduce haze enough to ensure “natural” visibility by 2064 in 156 national parks, wilderness areas and other federally-managed places where air pollution has obscured views.
Air Pollution Control Division planner Lisa Devore distinguished between “what is controllable versus what is uncontrollable” and told commissioners locking in utilities’ voluntary commitments would make them “federally enforceable” — and beyond haze, will help cut emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change. A state plan that lawmakers ordered to cut greenhouse gas pollution is overdue.
But restive residents raised health concerns and voiced frustrations at what some saw as a losing game in the face of climate warming that worsens bad air. More than 150 people participated in the air commissioners’ online meeting. Several noted the particulate-heavy smoke from wildfires that have burned more than 175,000 acres and aggravated respiratory ailments.
“It hurts my lungs to breathe when I walk outside. Ash lands on my clothes,” Giselle Herzfeld said. And the government “has not put us on track to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals.”
“If it is this bad now, think about what it is going to be like when our children are older,” said Jen Clanahan, leader of the Mountain Mamas activist group. “We really need to get going.”
Commerce City resident Lucy Molina said toxic air pollution may have contributed to the death from leukemia of her grandmother, her son’s bloody noses and headaches she and her daughter have endured. “These health impacts are real,” Molina said. “I really beg you to take climate action now.”
State lawmakers joined in, urging a more aggressive approach to improving air quality.
“Communities of color are disproportionately affected and very much burdened by climate change… I’m talking about environmental justice and racial justice,” said Rep. Dominique Jackson, D-Aurora.
Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, referred to the western forests, saying “our state is burning down. And our entire state is in a drought.”
“We have to have enforcement of mandatory (pollution reduction) programs… and they have to be equitable… We cannot just look at how we produce our energy,” she said. “We have to move beyond that. … We’re going to be spending more money on fires, floods — responding to climate change.”
Industry officials weighed in, too. Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association director Chelsie Miera said fossil fuel companies have prioritized safety “in the path of fire,” and allow firefighters access on industrial sites. “The use of oil and gas resources,” Miera told commissioners, helps firefighters combat wildfires.
COGA attorney Chris Colclasure said the oil and gas industry will be “a voice of reason” in “rule-making” aimed at reducing air pollution. “The rules need to be thought-out, have real benefit and be cost-effective,” he said.
Congress in 1977 declared a national goal of ensuring visibility in national parks and forests. The EPA in 1999 made a rule requiring a return of visibility to “natural levels” in 60 years, and then in 2017 revised that rule to give states greater flexibility in targeting haze.
In Colorado, initial efforts improved visibility in parks and wilderness areas by 14 miles on average, according to measurements in a progress report. But compared with natural conditions the distance visitors in Rocky Mountain National Park could see lagged by 46 miles due to haze. At the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, haze had reduced visibility by 55 miles. Similarly, haze hurt visitors’ views by 38 miles in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and 50 miles at Mesa Verde National Park. State measurements also showed haze impacts in the Weminuche, La Garita, Mount Zirkel, Rawah, Eagles Nest, Flat Tops, Maroon Bells-Snowmass and West Elk wilderness areas.
Haze comes from natural sources, such as lightning-sparked wildfires, and humans. Some pollutants, such as dust and soot, spread directly into the air. Others form in chemical reactions as sun-baked particulates mix with gases containing sulfur and nitrogen. Haze pollutants also worsen the ground-level ozone for which the EPA has deemed Colorado a “serious” violator of federal health standards.
Pollutants that form haze can cause health problems and hurt the environment. Inhaling small particles can impair breathing and lead to premature death, EPA records show. And nitrates and sulfates contribute to acid rain that can make lakes, rivers and streams unsuitable for fish.
Polis has declared reducing air pollution a priority, and the air commissioners are responsible for submitting a haze plan for EPA approval by July. They’re also tasked by lawmakers with making and implementing a plan that ensures reductions in heat-trapping pollution, by 90% before 2050 from the 2005 level of 134 million tons a year. A deadline for that plan has passed and the state faces lawsuits.
“Are we going to meet those ‘natural conditions’ goals? Colorado is well on track,” Devore said, discussing the EPA’s 2064 deadline for eliminating man-made haze. “You’re trying to incrementally make progress without going too far too fast.”
Commissioner Elise Jones asked whether “we as a state that relies on outdoor recreation could decide that we want clean air sooner than that.”
“Yeah,” Devore said. “We could.”
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