Regional haze reduction efforts should help reduce pollution along Front Range and in Rocky Mountain National Park
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — A new EPA-sanctioned clean air plan could be just what the doctor ordered for Rocky Mountain National Park, where rangers had to hoist ozone warnings 17 times this summer, after an average of about five to seven each of the last few years.
Ozone readings also spiked at numerous other locations, especially along the Front Range, and farther out into the eastern plains, where ozone previously hasn’t been a big problem.
Officials blamed the long, hot summer, which cooked the deadly mix of nitrogen oxides and other compounds into a smoggy soup that stresses respiratory systems, clouds visibility and harms plants even in the high alpine zone of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Clean air advocates say that, despite tough state rules, increasing oil and gas drilling along the Front Range are contributing to the increased frequency of ozone spikes, and say that global warming adds to the challenges of controlling ozone smog.
The regional haze plan approved by the EPA this week is a good step in the right direction, according to Environmental Defense Fund attorney Pam Campos, explaining that the plan includes hard targets for reducing emissions by retiring some old coal-burning power plants, converting some to natural gas and making sure other industrial facilities cut emissions.
The federal rule sets air quality goals that seek to improve visibility in national parks and wilderness areas across the country, while also providing public health benefits.
“My kids are going to grow up with cleaner air … but in a warming climate, we’re going to have more ozone. The race is on,” Campos said, adding that the first phase of the haze plan should evolve to include even more aggressive targets for the next planning period.
By 2018, the plan will cut more than 70,000 tons of pollutant reductions annually, including 35,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, one of the key ingredients in ground-level ozone formation. The plan covers 30 units at 16 facilities throughout Colorado, including coal-fired power plants and cement kilns.
“Colorado’s plan is a real model, a bellwether for addressing regional haze issues,” Campos added, saying that other state’s will likely use Colorado’s plan to guide their own efforts.
The plan also received a rare, unified endorsement from Colorado’s congressional delegation, Democrats and Republicans alike.
“The EPA’s decision means Colorado can move forward with its plans to help improve public health, increase visibility and reduce haze pollution in our national parks and wilderness areas, which are strong drivers of Colorado’s tourism and recreation economy,” said Senator Michael Bennet. “The EPA has recognized the strong bipartisan support this plan received from conservation groups, electric utilities, and the state legislature, which is a testament to everyone who worked to move the proposal forward.”
“There’s nothing more refreshing than taking a deep breath of clean, crisp Rocky Mountain air,” Representative Scott Tipton said. “I’m pleased to see that Colorado’s plan to reduce haze pollution is moving forward because it’s a common sense, locally-driven solution that will keep our state’s most beautiful areas clean, and ensure that all who visit or call our state home have the opportunity to enjoy one of the things that truly makes this the best place to live in the nation.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper said the collaborative plan balances economic growth with wise public policy that protects community health and our environmental values.
“Colorado’s utilities, environmental community, oil and gas industry, health advocates and regulators all came together to address air quality,” Hickenlooper said in a prepared statement.
The plan also garnered praise from state public health officials and public health advocates, as well as the oil and gas industry.
“In the eyes of the American Lung Association, policies such as this that clean up our air will help prevent disease,” said Curt Huber, executive director of the American Lung Association in Colorado. “Each year, the total benefits of EPA’s air pollution regulations outweigh the costs by as much as 40 to 1.”
“This approval is an important endorsement of Colorado’s state-led collaboration,” said Tisha Schuller, president & CEO of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association. “The Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act will support job creation in Colorado’s natural gas sector while measurably reducing air pollutant emissions,” she said.
The spread of ozone into what should be the pristine airshed of Rocky Mountain National Park shows how pervasive the problem has become. At times, parts of the park continue to experience air quality problems comparable to the urbanized Front Range.
“It’s going to take more work, more reductions than we’ve ever had to accomplish before,” said Jeremy Nichols, director of WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program.
“Clearly this problem is big. The problems in Denver are not just at the door, they’re in the house,” Nichols said, advocating for the National Park Service to take a leadership role in addressing ozone and haze.
Rocky Mountain National Park biologist Jim Cheatham acknowledged the exceptionally high number of advisories and exceedances this year. He said the park warns its guests about potential health concerns and monitors impacts to natural resources. Visitors with preexisting respiratory ailments may be affected when exerting themselves at high elevations and high ozone levels. The park has its own monitors to take real-time ozone readings and issues its own advisories when air quality deteriorates.
A number of plants in the park are susceptible to ozone damage, including aspens and spreading dogbane.
“One that we’ve focused on to study is the cutleaf coneflower. It readily shows injury from ground-level ozone,” Cheatham said. “It manifests by showing black stipules on the leaves.”
Altogether, there are eleven different plant species in the park that are susceptible to injury from elevated ozone levels. A five year study from 2006 to 2010 documented ongoing foliar ozone injury within the park.
“We support the current state implementation plan to help pull this area into attainment,” Cheatham concluded.
Filed under: air quality, climate and weather, Colorado, Environment Tagged: | air pollution, Colorado, Colorado regional haze reduction plan, ozone, Rocky Mountain National Park, United States Environmental Protection Agency, WildEarth Guardians