Denver has struggled with ozone levels for thirty years, and the fight isn't over yet

Downtown Denver's ozone levels are monitored from a five-by-seven-foot shack guarded by a single padlock. The cramped room's contents are those of a high-tech janitor's closet: Windex, a broom, a chair, a fire extinguisher and about $25,000 worth of equipment that uses UV light to record the city's levels of the reactive gas pollutant — and then regularly tells the federal government that we've got ozone issues.

There are currently sixteen ozone stations, many of them identical to this one, throughout the Environmental Protection Agency's Denver Northern Front Range area, which stretches from just south of Castle Rock to the Colorado-Wyoming border. Today, the equipment here shows that the air outside tests at exactly the acceptable federal standard of 75 parts per billion. But at the same time, three other stations are registering violations.

This would be bad news — if only it were new.


Air Pollution

Of the six pollutants classified under 1970's Federal Clean Air Act — a list that includes carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, lead and two types of particulate matter — ozone is the only one that isn't emitted on its own. It's a secondary pollutant, a reaction to the combination of volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen that is at its most aggressive when the sun is, too. It can result from burning things, turning things on and mass-producing things. As a result, it's tough to monitor and tough to get rid of. It's the roach of the air-quality world.

That's a large and carefully documented world: The Northern Front Range, the only part of Colorado with a current air problem, was first designated as a federal nonattainment area for ozone in 1978, eight years after the Clean Air Act became law and shacks like the one downtown were first erected. In this world, official rulings and regulations consistently lag behind the data. Right now, the area is "nonattainment" for a newer, stronger standard passed in 2008, which supported a ruling of 75 parts per billion over its 1997 predecessor of 80 — and the area was also out of attainment for that standard.

"It's kind of like you used to need a 90 to get an A on a test, and then you needed a 95, and now you need a 97," says Gordon Pierce, program manager at the Air Pollution Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. He sighs, then grins. "The best way I can think of to say it is that we know we have a problem, we've known for a while, and we've got plans to fix it. Big plans. It's just not always easy."

Pierce doesn't always seem hopeful, but he is optimistic. And when it comes to the state's unhealthy ozone level, there is a difference.

After all, Denver is not Los Angeles, as Pierce is quick to point out. On a scale of top-to-bottom national classifications, the Colorado problem is labeled as "marginal," while California's difficulties are more often classified under the politely terrifying "serious." But the pollutant's effects aren't just an environmental numbers game.

"We're behind the eight ball, especially in Colorado, and we're unhealthy and out of compliance," says Dr. Nathan Rabinovitch, a lung specialist and pediatric researcher at National Jewish Hospital. "When we get older as adults and senior citizens, we're going to be paying the penalty. We have to think about that."

Most of what doctors know about the effects of ozone has been gathered from samples removed from deteriorated lungs. They know it damages them, but they still don't know how long that damage lasts. They know that those who are affected the most suffer from pre-existing lung conditions, like asthma, and they know that ozone makes life toughest for children and the elderly. What they don't know is how to make the public care.

"It depends on if you're a public-health person or a clinician," Rabinovitch says. "A public-health representative would say this is an area-wide problem without an individual solution, that a change is needed for the entire population. As a clinician, I'd say those are the people we should be targeting the most. But it's important to think about our future, even if we're young and active at this point."

Ozone is not the first public-health pollutant the state has grappled with. Colorado, and the Front Range in particular, has taken on two of the Clean Air Act's other culprits — carbon monoxide and lead — and managed to cut down their levels through statewide emissions programs in order to regain attainment. Pierce points to a chart on the wall of the Broadway carbon monoxide monitoring site as proof: Although its timeline ends in 1999, it shows a dramatic decline in carbon monoxide rates area-wide, an easily recognizable success story. There are no such charts for ozone. If there were, the graph would be a depressing horizontal line.

Downwind cities tend to be the ones facing recurring issues with ozone, not the pollutant's original source areas, such as parts of Wyoming. Denver falls prey to ozone in large part for two reasons: Its basin topography traps ozone with few options for its escape, and the warm summer climate perpetuates it. Although three of its monitoring sites currently operate above the federal limit, four are at or approaching it. By next summer, those sites are likely to raise the nonattainment total to seven. "Another bad year could put us over," says Will Allison, director of the state's Air Pollution Control Division. "When the federal standards change, that will be a challenge."

Just last month, President Barack Obama delayed the release of a new and higher (always higher) standard. Because of a consistent lag from the EPA, the Northern Front Range area is still technically listed as nonattainment for the 1997 national standard; it has yet to officially be classified the same for its 2008 successor.

"All that's changed is that the levels have gotten more strict," says Christopher Dann, spokesman for Denver Air Quality at the state health department. "We might have looked great under the last standard, but then a new standard comes along and makes us look terrible. We're not even compliant under the existing standard, so we have enough to worry about. That train is farther down the track." In shacks like the one where Dann and Pierce stand, ozone levels are measured and averaged over an eight-hour span, with numbers from each site uploaded to the health department's website within an hour of their retrieval and then later checked on by the feds.

"The reason we've got this ozone issue we're dealing with has as much to do with the standards getting tighter as it does with our air quality getting markedly worse," says Ken Lloyd, director of the Regional Air Quality Council. "When the new standard hit in 2001 after the EPA was sued at a national level for it being so high, we knew it was going to become a problem for us. And it has."

To solve the problem, the state is focusing on potential solutions ranging from stricter vehicle-emissions requirements to coal-burning fuel improvements to oil and gas regulations that, though ambitious, are unlikely to create any major combined effects until 2018. Each state is expected to try to solve its own pollution problems — to create what is called a State Implementation Plan, run it by the EPA, get it approved and then follow it. Colorado's most recent plan to lower Front Range ozone rates was approved earlier this month.

"We take our responsibility very seriously here," Lloyd says. "That attitude changes depending on whom you talk to, but our job at the Regional Air Quality Council is, point blank, to meet whatever standards are set." Even if the standards are impossible to meet. "We don't get into the debate about whether the standards are too stringent or when they will become even tighter," he adds. "Certainly if they do, it will become much, much more difficult."

When the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act was passed in 2010, it was touted as a tool in the local struggle against ozone. The legislation led to changes in fuel sources at numerous Front Range power plants, and oil and gas regulations have also grown tougher; a handful of the regulations applied here have been the first of their kind in the country. When these programs are combined with the state's stricter vehicle emissions standards, Lloyd and other officials expect to see noticeable improvement in the ozone levels by 2018.

But if a new federal standard is handed down in the meantime, the state will face an even longer future of nonattainment. So at what point does the entire issue become just so much hot air?

"We have a lot of people, and we burn stuff," Dann concludes. "People know this, and they know about ozone, but for the most part, they aren't invested in what it all means. And that certainly isn't helping."


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