By Rep Tracey Bernett
Like many of you, I love spending time outdoors here in Boulder County, especially in the summer. Much of our family time is spent outdoors, and as an avid runner who competes both nationally and internationally, summertime is peak training season. However, over the past few summers, my phone frequently pings ozone air quality warnings from the Regional Air Quality Commission (RAQC): “Moderate, Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups.” This summer, those pings have been almost a daily occurrence. Have you ever read those warnings? They say: “Active children and adults…should reduce prolonged or heavy exercise…” A healthcare professional once told me that breathing ozone is like rubbing sandpaper on the lungs. Should I run on a treadmill inside, even though it’s a beautiful day? Scrap that race? Mothers have told me they’re torn between letting their children run and play outside – a seemingly healthy activity – and worrying about the damage ozone may be doing to their kids still developing lungs. While many people ignore these warnings, for people who work outside, have poor access to healthcare, or have respiratory illnesses and conditions such as asthma, this warning can mean the difference between life and death.
According to the RAQC, this ozone pollution problem is home-grown, and includes Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, Jefferson, Larimer, and Weld Counties– from the Denver metro area and northern front range all the way up to the Wyoming border, and from the continental divide all the way out to rural Weld County.
But with a problem as large as the sky is wide (literally), for years leaders and lawmakers have failed to pass legislation or regulations which truly addresses and resolves the problem. In fact, it has been pushed aside for so long, the EPA recently downgraded this area for the fifth time. The EPA now rates our ozone pollution problem as “severe,” just one rating away from being tied with Los Angeles. In order to address a problem so large, it will take broad community support to work together to meet the following key goals. This year, Colorado state lawmakers passed important legislation that makes significant investments in CDPHE staffing, electric school busses, e-bikes, free transit during “ozone season,” and increased air quality monitoring. But this is not enough to bend the curve on ozone pollution, because it doesn’t address some of the fundamental causes of our ozone problem. While I applaud the important additional executive actions Governor Polis has taken this summer, it is important to codify those actions into law and, to quote Colorado State Senator Faith Winter, ensure they’re verifiable, equitable and enforceable.
First, we must address the issue of the cumulative impacts of the tens of thousands of small sources that emit ozone creating pollution. Currently, Colorado does not have any scientifically-based permitting guidelines that address these small source emissions, let alone their cumulative impact, a significant source of ozone creating pollution. The second thing we must do is require greater coordination between the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) on the cumulative impacts of ozone and other greenhouse gas emissions (yes, ozone is a GHG!), especially in regards to permitting decisions of oil & gas facilities. Finally, we must push the RAQC to adopt much more aggressive actions in the State Implementation Plan (SIP), the plan that the EPA and the Clean Air Act requires to show how Colorado will fix the ozone problem. Because, according to the RAQC’s own data, the current SIP is not even projected to bring us into compliance with the 2015 ozone air quality health-based standards, meaning that it fails to meet the basic requirements of federal law.
Colorado was once known for having the best air in the world, and people from across the world would travel here to experience the outdoors and our beautiful natural treasures. In the coming session, I am committed to setting clear policy objectives to fix our ozone pollution problem. However, this is not something I can do alone. Please, reach out to the Governor’s office and ask him to make it a priority in the coming year. In addition, reach out to other state representatives and senators and let them know how important it is to pass meaningful ozone air quality legislation. Finally, reach out to industries and tell them to do their part to help us improve the air we all breathe. Together, we can repair the damage and protect our air and our health now and for generations to come.