DENVER — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has downgraded the air quality rating of Colorado’s biggest population center.
The EPA finalized the move Monday, lowering the ozone status of Denver and eight other northern Colorado counties from “moderate” to “serious.” That will force the state to work harder to reduce harmful pollution but also bring tougher and costly regulations for businesses.
Gov. Jared Polis took the unusual step of inviting the EPA to downgrade the rating, saying in March that Colorado would no longer ask for an exemption from standards by claiming some of the pollution was drifting into the state from elsewhere.
He said in August it was time to stop “sugar-coating” Colorado’s air problems.
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The reclassification requires the state to revise its plan to reduce ozone-forming emissions, which can aggravate asthma and contribute to early deaths from respiratory disease. Ground-level ozone is the main component of smog, and it’s created from pollution emitted by vehicles, industries, solvents and other sources.
Denver and the northern Colorado urban corridor have struggled to meet EPA ozone standards for 15 years. In addition to Denver, counties affected by the change are Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Douglas, Jefferson, Larimer and Weld.
The EPA announcement doesn’t mean local air quality has gotten worse, though. Fort Collins air quality changes year to year and reached especially poor status in 2018, but it’s improved on average over the last decade. West Fort Collins air quality has exceeded the current federal standard for ozone four times this year, and air quality near Colorado State University hasn’t surpassed the standard in 2019.
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Ozone standards are a labyrinthine network of regulations and requirements that can be hard to comprehend from a layman’s perspective. Air quality compliance is judged by a three-year average of an area’s highest values, with a few free passes given for the worst values recorded. This region’s value when the EPA deadline fell in summer 2018 was 79 parts per billion, exceeding the 75 ppb standard.
Each region that misses the first compliance deadline gets several more chances to get in shape and can request a deadline extension, although the EPA requires those regions to prove they’re trying by creating an improvement plan. Failure to meet the deadlines and follow EPA’s “needs improvement” procedures can eventually impact federal highway funding.
The Coloradoan contributed to this report.
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