Air quality: The EPA tentatively approves Colorado's plan to reduce brown cloud

Some things about Colorado just don't change. But while the state has been the country's leanest, meanest anti-obesity machinefor years, it's struggled with, lived under and remain concerned about the brown cloud even longer. But this morning, Governor John Hickenlooper shared news that the State Implementation Plan for Regional Haze has been approved -- at least preliminarily -- by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"It's great news, and we're pleased they reached the same conclusion that we did," says Will Allison, director of the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division. "We expect their final action will be the same as their proposed action."

This is not our first rodeo. The plan, which is available in full (and at length) below, first earned approval from the state's Air Quality Commission in December 2007 before undergoing revisions one year later, and then again in January 2011. For more information, the plan includes regional impact analysis and data collected at problem environmental sites throughout the years.

With visibility as a chief concern, the plan is intended to greatly reduce statewide pollution in order to boost health and environmental quality. Designed within the state as opposed to mandated by the federal government, the SIP focuses on long-term strategies over short-term results. This means most of the estimated changes would reach their greatest significance in 2018, when state scientists estimate it will take down the state's pollution rate by 70,000 tons of materials each year.

"Our plan will lead to less haze and improved visibility in some of Colorado's most treasured and scenic areas, including Rocky Mountain National Park, Mesa Verde, Maroon Bells and the Great Sand Dunes," said Dr. Christopher E. Urbina, Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, in a press release on the subject. "The tremendous pollution reductions will also have significant public health benefits."

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In the state's thirty-year struggle with ozone, this is a giant leap: The statistic includes an estimated 35,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, pesky chemicals often responsible for ozone at the human level. (Should you ever need a reminder of which ozone layer to worry about -- the one you can see or the one you can't -- just remember this rhyme: "Ozone is good up high, but bad nearby.")

Since 1977, the federal Clean Air Act has defined visibility as a mandatory improvement area with the following official language: "Congress hereby declares as a national goal the prevention of any future, and the remedying of any existing, impairment of visibility in mandatory Class I Federal areas which impairment results from man-made air pollution." In Colorado, one of the weightiest measures taken to guarantee this in recent memory is the creation of the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act in 2010.

Under Clean Air-Clean Jobs, the state restricts pollutants via emissions controls that regulate coal-burning power plants in particular in an effort to translate to natural gas. Overall, the state plan imposes changes at sixteen sites across the state, coal plants included.

And while the announcement that the EPA has tentatively signed off on the state's plan to clear the haze is a big one, the issue is not entirely settled. In the coming weeks, the agency will publish its preliminary approval in the Federal Register, after which it will open for public comment for sixty days before the EPA announces a final decision. That means an additional waiting period of up to half a year.

Here's the plan:

State Implementation Plan for Regional Haze

More from our Environment archive: "Denver has struggled with ozone levels for thirty years, and the fight isn't over yet."

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