• Colorado Department of Public Safety Ozone Alert Day.

The EPA downgrade of Northern Front Range ozone pollution to “severe” from “serious” on April 12 will require hundreds of Colorado companies to get emission permits from a critically backlogged state system, but health officials say their request for a steep budget increase from lawmakers will clear the jam and improve the air.

State health officials April 12 said they welcomed the EPA’s announcement knocking the Denver metro area and other major U.S. cities into a tougher enforcement category for ozone, saying the long-anticipated move would “help build upon Colorado’s strategies to protect and improve the air we breathe.”

The move means state permits will be required for 473 more sources of pollution that contribute to ozone, as the threshold drops from 50 tons of covered pollutants a year to include all those sources emitting 25 tons or more, Air Pollution Control Director Michael Ogletree said. That will nearly triple the “major source” locations that need to be permitted, to a total of 730, state officials said.

Previously, the environmental nonprofit WildEarth Guardians had said many of the sites now required to get permits would include the oil and gas industry, at drilling and collection locations.

That new work will run headlong into a state health permitting system already assailed by courts and environmental groups as years behind, potentially endangering the health of more Coloradans living in highly polluted areas.

One set of permits at a key polluter, the Suncor Energy refinery in Commerce City, expired in 2012, and another in 2018, with a state court judge in January ordering Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials to finish renewing the permits “without delay.” When the state did issue a revised permit that it said put important new restrictions on Suncor, the regional EPA office sent the proposed permit back for tougher revisions in March.

State officials said April 12 they have 52 major source polluters backlogged for review of new permits or renewals. They say that is a significant reduction from the 143 permits overdue in 2015.

“Our pollution control division is really at a transition point,” CDPHE Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan said in an interview. “It’s been under-resourced for two decades. We’re changing the way that we fund it. And I’m on a mission to really modernize and rightsized it to meet today’s air quality demands.”

Gov. Jared Polis and the health department are asking the legislature to approve more than $40 million in new general fund spending to quickly beef up the air pollution division with new permit engineers, experts who will model expected pollution, and experts to monitor existing pollution, according to Ryan and Ogletree. The boost in spending is aimed at clearing the backlog of overdue permit renewals and preparing for the onslaught of newly permitted sources, they said.

The boost will add more than 100 full-time positions to the understaffed division and will allow for expanded technology including aerial monitoring of pollution sites, Ogletree said.

“We right now have a permitting database from the 1990s, and we have a request for several million dollars to be able to upgrade that,” Ryan added.

A budget with whistleblowers in mind?

Lack of pollution modeling staff and permitting procedures too friendly to industrial polluters were among the criticisms leveled at the health department by internal whistleblowers in 2021. The whistleblowers, from the Air Pollution Control Division’s modeling staff, asked the EPA Office of Inspector General to investigate, and the EPA’s detailed objection to the Suncor permit indicated federal officials are listening closely.

Environmental groups that have been demanding stronger, faster action by state health officials say they are cautiously optimistic about the bigger budget and change in emphasis by CDPHE leadership. They add that they are not about to let down their guard.

“Health professionals in our state see and treat the real health impacts of poor air quality everyday. They are unequivocal about the dire impacts that air pollution has on community health,” said Sabrina Pacha, director of the nonprofit Healthy Air & Water Colorado. Her group and others want the state to look at the cumulative effects of other area polluters when considering whether to approve each new permit.

“We also need an expansion of community-based monitoring so that we know what is in the air we are breathing, not just at polluting facilities but in our neighborhoods, too,” she said.

The 2022-23 budget proposal “is an important first-step investment” toward better air quality, said Jared Bynum, communities and justice advocate at Conservation Colorado.

Environmental advocates also point to some of the same state budget elements touted by air pollution officials, including millions of dollars in spending to replace high-polluting diesel school buses with clean electric models in coming years. Better buses for school children, “so quiet and clean,” are important for communities highly impacted by past pollution, Bynum said.

A state health department release on the EPA’s ozone announcement noted the other cities whose problems are now being reclassified as severe: Chicago-Naperville; Dallas-Fort Worth; Houston-Galveston-Brazoria; Morongo Band of Mission Indians, in the Coachella Valley area east of Los Angeles; and New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island.

Colorado air experts have said the Denver metro area’s ongoing ozone problems arise from a few major contributors: industrial and auto emissions that have not been cut as quickly as necessary; hotter summers that increase pollution volatility; and ozone-contributing wildfire smoke blowing east from a sharply increasing number of superfires in states to the west and northwest.

Part of the Colorado shortfall on ozone comes from changing EPA standards. While metro area ozone levels are stubborn and creeping up, they are also hitting the increasingly rigorous recommendations of scientists and doctors. The 2008 EPA standard of an average 75 parts per billion fell to 70 parts per billion in a 2015 revision. Many Front Range pollution monitors frequently registered over 80 parts per billion in the heat of 2021, state records show.

Cutting ozone-causing pollutants often goes hand-in-hand with efforts to trim Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions — mitigation policies can cut both forms of pollutants at the same time. Yet state moves to cut vehicle-based emissions, for example, are resisted by drivers and many businesses, and criticized by environmental groups as too slow.

An “Advanced Clean Trucks” rule to require gradual replacement of fossil fuel engines with cleaner electric and hydrogen models has been delayed until 2023, though community and environmental advocates are now petitioning the Air Quality Control Commission to get it done sooner. In 2021, state air pollution officials proposed a set of commuting rules for large employers aimed at cutting miles driven but withdrew the proposal after sharp opposition from employers and trade groups.

While promoting changes in the new budget, state health officials say they also anticipate air quality improvements from a recent list of legislation and department rules that did pass. They cite new limits on emissions from oil and gas operations, the continuing closures of coal-fired power plants that are the biggest polluters in the state, increasing electric vehicle sales, and new Colorado Department of Transportation rules on reducing emissions when planning major road projects.

“We have so much on our plate from past legislation,” Ryan said. “We’re going really fast, and we will get it all done. It just takes time.”

This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.