Ozone levels in Boulder County are not looking good for residents, with recent levels set to reclassify the county, along with the Denver metro/Front Range region, as a serious nonattainment area for ozone.

Such a designation means that the region does not meet Environmental Protection Agency standards for ozone levels set in place under the Clean Air Act.

“Twenty-eighteen ozone season was so bad it sealed the deal,” said Boulder County Air Quality specialist Cindy Copeland, on why the region is being reclassified.

Ozone concentrations are said to be unhealthy over 70 parts per billion. The year 2018 saw a high of 89, while as of 2019, the highest recorded level has been 72. And that number still may rise as levels increase in the warmer months.

Breathing ground-level ozone can lead to various respiratory problems such as coughing, throat irritation, chest discomfort and shortness of breath. Long-term exposure can be more severe with increased asthma attacks and risks of illness and even death. The county is expected to be classified by the end of summer.

“We’re very concerned about the continued health impacts,” Copeland said. “It’s hard to see that continue for a number of years.”

No immediate action for oil and gas

Copeland listed several ways that residents can combat ozone levels such as people with breathing problems avoiding exercising outside. She recommended people fill up their cars with gas in the mornings as opposed to the afternoons when ozone levels are higher. She also encourages residents to take part in public comment opportunities to raise their concerns with state officials.

While new state initiatives such as Senate Bill 181 aim to be more heavy handed with oil and gas extractors, Copeland said that Boulder County is not currently pursuing any new legal action against companies.

But county commissioners have taken a stand to halt further oil drilling in the area, with a temporary moratorium placed on county staff accepting or processing new oil and gas drilling applications. That is set to go through until March 2020. Copeland also said that she would like to see increased monitoring of extraction sites.

“If you’re monitoring closer to sources, the public can see what emissions are like and that could encourage companies to lower emissions quicker,” Copeland said.

Although further legal action against extractors is not in the cards for the county, Copeland pointed to a number of other initiatives being taken to increase better air quality. These include the adoption of a low-emissions vehicle standard. The county is aiming to eventually have a zero-emissions standard with an increase in electric vehicles.

But electric cars can be costly and create an economic barrier for some. Copeland defended this and said that the investment is worth the price tag as it reduces spending on gas. State rebates also help to incentivise people to purchase electric vehicles.

Still, Copeland acknowledged that the measures in place are “not enough.” The issue of air quality has long plagued Boulder County and the region. In 2004 the area was designated as in nonattainment by the EPA. The agency deferred on officially classifying the region when state departments assured the state that ozone control measures would be put in place.

That deferral expired in 2007 and a year later the region was classified as a “marginal” nonattainment area before being named a “moderate” one. Its new classification, “serious,” will put the region just under “severe” for ozone levels.

“It’s disappointing because the state has been working to reduce Ozone emissions, but at the same time we’ve seen increased populations and vehicle traffic and increased oil and gas production,” Copeland said.

Not decreasing fast enough

Dan Welsh, a meteorologist for Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, explained that while the EPA continues to lower the standard for safe ozone levels, the region is still not where it needs to be.

“This is not a new problem,” Welsh said. “While Colorado ozone levels are decreasing overall, they are not necessarily decreasing as fast as the standard.”

Welsh said he expects to see periodic spikes in ozone levels for the area as the summer continues. This is because ozone levels increase with higher temperatures while the cold can destroy ozone concentrations. With air rising slower uphill and the mountainous region creating a natural barrier, ozone is trapped above the county. Ozone can also move with wind from areas in Denver to the Front Range.

As for action being taken by the state department, a program exists to urge companies to do what they can to lower toxic levels. According to Welsh, the department will routinely communicate with oil and gas companies for when it believes ozone levels will be high. It will then recommend that companiesaddress this however possible. But the choice for a company to take part in this is voluntary.

For Welsh, voluntary cooperation is a “great place to start.”

“Pollution is an issue in Colorado and it hopefully is of concern to anyone and everyone who lives and works here,” Welsh said. “Additional measures may likely be needed to fully address or mitigate the issue of ozone on the Front Range.”

Perception vs reality

Boulder County appears to many as an eco-conscious haven, with an emphasis on the outdoors, with Rocky Mountain National Park just to its north. Yet, for 22-year-old University of Colorado Boulder student Mike Jacobs, telling his out-of-state friends about the Front Range’s air quality leaves them shocked.

Jacobs, who recently co-founded CU’s Climate Reality Project, an environmental advocacy group, said that the region has a perception of clean air as opposed to the reality. He believes the state should be doing more to pressure oil and gas companies and said the current moratorium is a “good start.”

“These (drilling sites) aren’t built to last forever,” Jacobs said. “Halt with the new installations, let (current sites) live out the rest of its life whilst giving time to transition to a more green system.”

He was critical of the state’s voluntary program and said it is not enough to ensure oil and gas companies are held accountable. Jacobs also wants to see improved public transportation in Boulder as a way to reduce ozone emissions and said that currently residents are not given a worthwhile alternative to driving.

But if anything is going to change, said Jacobs, it is going to be because of legislation.

“The best thing we can do is reaching out to our legislators and advocating for what we think is right,” Jacobs said. “The youth and the younger generation deserve a green future.”

An automated emissions monitoring system at the Boulder Reservoir on Thursday in Boulder. (Photo by Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)

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