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State to retire the only air quality monitor in Summit County

Officials say there’s no good public health reason to continue testing

Smoky skies last Saturday spurred temporary concerns about air quality in Summit County, Colorado. PHOTO BY BOB BERWYN.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — While some jurisdictions in Colorado are stepping up air quality monitoring to assess potential threats from increased oil and gas drilling, state air quality regulators are considering retiring the only monitor in Summit County.

The Breckenridge site was installed a few decades ago, when pollution from wood smoke was still a big concern. Readings from the monitoring station haven’t come anywhere close to exceeding pollution limits in more than 10 years, and operating the monitor is costly, requiring manual removal of samples up to three times per week.

According to local health officials, the state has reported some issues with the current operator in terms of getting consistent data. At one point, the state approached Summit County about taking over the operation, but according to environmental health manager Dan Hendershott, that option is not in the cards, due to budget constraints.

As a result, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Air Pollution Control Division may ask the EPA for permission to take down the site.

“There’s no good public health reason to maintain that station,” said APCD spokesman Christopher Dann. “Anytime we talk about retiring a monitor, it’s a good thing,” Dann said.

Smoky weekend

The issue of air quality monitoring came up last weekend. When smoke from distant forest fires filled Summit County skies, local residents and visitors called 911 en masse, until local officials put out a short alert via email and text, asking people not to call.

Several people had questions about air quality impacts from the smoke, which dispersed by mid-afternoon, but not before a few people suffered some ill-effects. Some residents speculated that officials were slow to pull the trigger on a warning because of concerns about scaring away tourists at the start of holiday weekend.

In 2002, then-Gov. Bill Owens was jeered by tourism boosters after declaring that the whole state was on fire during a series of large fires in early June.

“Saturday I had friends here and one is an asthma sufferer,” said Breckenridge resident Dave Rossi. “We all went on a bike ride because her boyfriend said ‘oh they said they’d warn if it was bad.’ Well three hours later she was on her way down to Denver to recover from a bad attack,” Rossi said.

 “So, if we don’t warn guests, and they go out, they’ll leave anyway. That is a loss for the industry … even though Denver was suffering from the same awful air, nobody knew,” he continued.
Hendershott said local officials discussed whether they should issue a warning Saturday, especially after the flood of calls to 911. The general rule is simply based on visual observations. If visibility drops below five miles, it’s a sign that the air is probably not so healthy, Hendershott explained.
“In my experience, we try to be cognizant of potential health threats,” he said, explaining that the discussions included public health director Deb Crook and Summit County emergency manager Joel Cochran.

In general, air quality is not a huge environmental issue in Summit County because of topography, prevailing winds and controls on particulate emissions. For the state, which administers the federal Clean Air Act on behalf of the EPA, the focus in recent years has shifted to monitoring for less visible, but equally harmful types of air pollution, including ozone and nitrous oxide, according to the APCD’s Dann.

The monitoring has also shifted geographically, to areas where the energy industry is booming, including the Front Range and parts of the West Slope like Garfield County.

EPA officials said decommissioning the Breckenridge site would involve some sort of review, but they explained that the monitoring at that location isn’t required by the federal agency. For particulate monitoring under the PM 10 standard (referring to particle size), monitoring requirements are based mainly on population.

Other types of monitoring, for example for nitrogen pollution, is at the discretion of the regional EPA director, who can determine the placement of 40 monitors across the region based on assessments of where those types of pollution might be an issue, said Carl Daly, director of the EPA’s regional air quality program in Denver.

In Routt County, environmental health director Mike Zipf said the county commissioners have asked for more monitoring of ozone and other gases associated with energy development.

“We’ve gone from being a non-attainment area to attainment and we want to keep it that way,” Zipf said, explaining that ongoing monitoring helps the county manage its street sanding program.

“We’re seeing an increasing interest in drilling in Routt County,” he said, adding that there’s also concern about potential air quality impacts from the energy boom in nearby counties.

But the only way to assess future impacts is to get some good baseline data now, he added.

Does Summit County face potential air quality impacts from the regional energy development boom? We may never know, or we may not know until it’s too late, because nobody is testing the air.

 

 

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