Colorado just can’t get a grip on its smog problem

State  fails to meet EPA standard set to protect public health; ozone problems to worsen with global warming

State regulators have left children, the elderly and asthmatics vulnerable to potentially deadly levels of ozone. Photo courtesy NREL.

By Bob Berwyn

The modest steps taken by Colorado to try and improve air quality along the Front Range aren’t enough, according to the EPA. This week, the federal agency said the state has failed to meet air quality standards set to protect public health.

In a Federal Register Notice, the EPA designated the Denver-Boulder-Greeley-Fort Collins-Loveland corridor as a nonattainment area because it didn’t meet the federal limits for ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog. Under the Clean Air Act, the state was required to bring the Front Range into compliance with smog limits by July of 2015.  Colorado failed to meet this deadline.

Ozone forms when pollution from tailpipes, smokestacks, and oil and gas operations reacts with sunlight. At ground level, the poisonous gas is a serious public health risk, especially for kids, older people and anyone with respiratory ailments. One recent study showed that global warming will worsen the problem, as climbing temperatures exacerbate ozone pollution.

Colorado, for all its claims to be leading the nation in regulation emissions from fracking, is way behind the curve when it comes to tackling dangerous ozone pollution. And some research suggests that the state’s air quality officials have greatly underestimated the pollution from fracking and related fossil fuel development, which will make catching up even harder.

And if it ends up being a hot summer, Front Range residents could be in for a rude awakening, as a new federal standard could trigger many more public health warnings. There could be dozens of days along the Front Range when state air quality and health officials will have to issue ozone alerts, said WildEarth Guardians’ Jeremy Nichols, who watchdogs the state’s climate and environmental policies.

“You’re going to see ozone alerts from Greeley to Colorado Springs … This is a crisis right now, when think about kids with asthma,” Nichols said, adding that state regulators are just starting on a process to update air quality rules. “They’re in a hole right now. The state always wants to do just the bare minimum,” Nichols said. “How many times do we need to go through this? They’re going to have to do the mandatory tailpipe stuff, but they’re going to have to reduce emissions, and that means they have to go after oil and gas,” he said.

“Governor Hickenlooper and his Department of Public Health and Environment just don’t seem to get it, clean air isn’t just important, it’s critical for our health and quality of life,” Nichols said in a press release. “It’s time for the state to stop failing when it comes to keeping smog out of our skies; it’s time to actually put our health and our environment first.”

WildEarth Guardians has pled with Colorado to strengthen pollution limits, particularly from oil and gas operations.

“The writing on the wall is clear, the state’s pollution reduction efforts are falling dangerously short,” said Nichols.  “Governor Hickenlooper needs to wake up to the fact that when it comes to protecting our clean air, failure is not an option.”


In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency set a health-based limit on ozone in the air, limiting concentrations to no more 0.075 parts per million over an eight-hour period.  Responding to new scientific recommendations, in 2015 the Agency set a new limit of 0.070 parts per million over an eight-hour period.

According to the Department of Public Health and Environment, four monitors along the Front Range, currently show violations of the 2008 ozone standard and 10 monitors are currently in violation of the new ozone standard.

The EPA’s finding is a determination that after eight years, the Front Range still has failed to meet the 2008 limits. It also underscores that the state is likely not on track to bring the region into compliance with the 2015 ozone standard.

“If the state continues to avoid doing what is necessary to reduce smog pollution, people along the Front Range can expect to be smothered in smog for years to come,” said Nichols. “That would not only unacceptable, that would border on a crime against public health.”

The consequences of today’s finding are that the state now faces more mandatory pollution clean up requirements under the Clean Air Act, including more rigorous tailpipe testing mandates and vapor recovery systems for gasoline stations. All polluters along the Front Range also face tightened emission limits and more controls.

If the state continues to fail to bring the Front Range into compliance with ozone limits, the state faces sanctions from the Environmental Protection Agency, including lost highway funding, and even more restrictive pollution control requirements.


One thought on “Colorado just can’t get a grip on its smog problem

  1. The benefits from oil and gas operations far outweigh any drawbacks. Why doesn’t the EPA call for regulation of the true problem – overpopulation in Colorado?

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