State commission to review health impacts of air quality
A state commission charged with regulating air quality will launch a rulemaking process next month that could result in state regulations governing oil and gas emissions becoming more stringent than those imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, which regulates a variety of industries that impact air quality, will start a rulemaking process to review new air quality standards approved by the EPA.
Colorado’s Regulation 7, which controls the amount of ozone oil and gas operations are allowed to emit, will be subject to review, said Teresa Coons, commission vice chairwoman.
The EPA recently approved a standard for ozone of 75 parts per billion.
While the commission is not free to reject the new EPA regulation, it may modify it so long as the state regulation is more stringent than the federal, Coons said.
Notice of the rulemaking goes out in November, she said.
Health impact of bad air
The health and comfort of Coloradans often depends on the quality of the air they breathe.
On any given day, high levels of air pollution may increase cardiac stress for people with heart disease and can aggravate other illnesses like asthma and emphysema, said Ed Brotsky, Mesa County air quality specialist.
In the Grand Valley, weather conditions — as much as pollutants — determine whether people with lung or heart disease will be forced to stay indoors to avoid bad air, Brotsky said.
The county monitors 15 different instruments at six sites to gage the level of pollutants in the atmosphere. The instruments detect ground-level ozone, fine and course particulates, carbon monoxide and urban air toxics like carbonyls, heavy metals and hexavalent chromium.
Locally, course and fine particulates, also known as “dust,” and ozone, pose the greatest health concern, he said.
Wood-burning stoves, motor vehicles and oil and gas well emissions generate particulates and ozone.
“Most of the time in the Grand Valley, we have really wonderful air quality, but periodically we have some days where the monitor values get pretty bad,” Brotsky said.
As winter approaches, weather phenomena known as thermal inversions pose the greatest risk to health.
Thermal inversions are caused by a combination of geography and weather, Brotsky said.
Inversions occur when a layer of warm air settles over a layer of cooler air that lies near the ground. The warm air holds down the cool air and prevents pollutants from rising and dispersing.
In the Grand Valley, the condition may occur when there is snow on the ground and daytime temperatures drop to below freezing. Warm air above acts like a cork in a bottle, trapping polluted air in the valley.
When inversions occur, ozone and particulates can accumulate for long periods of time, Brotsky said.
“It’s like taking a bath in the same water over and over again,” he said.
Hazy, smoggy conditions may indicate an inversion is in place.
Last winter, inversions caused Mesa County to prohibit wood burning 47 times during a 120-day period - more than twice the annual average of 19, he said.
“Last year, it was really cold for long periods of time,” Brotsky said. “Also, the size of the population contributed.”
People concerned about air quality can check levels in real time by going to http://www.airnow.gov. A color-coded graphic indicates whether the air quality is good or bad at any given moment.
Impact of tougher rules
Under the federal Clean Air Act, communities are designated “attainment” or “nonattainment” areas based on whether they meet state and federal air quality standards, Brotsky said.
Nonattainment is declared when monitoring data, which is averaged over a three-year period, shows the standards were violated. A finding of non-attainment triggers a multi-year process, he said.
If found to be in violation of air quality standards, a community must conduct an emission inventory and develop a modeling and control strategy.
Next, a state implementation plan must be developed and approved by the EPA.
Progress in meeting the standard is reviewed over time and sanctions, in the form of lost federal funding, may be imposed if the standards are not met, Brotsky said.
Mesa County is probably safe if the standard is not changed from the current federal regulation, or if the character of the community does not markedly change — something that could occur should the population increase or certain industries expand, Brotsky said.
“A new standard of 70 ppb would be cutting it close,” he said.
A standard of 65 ppb or lower would probably mean nonattainment, Brotsky said.
While a lower standard could have negative economic impacts for the oil and gas industry, it could actually benefit other segments of the economy, like agriculture.
Cleaner air could mean better crop yields and might increase production across industries due to employees taking fewer sick days, Brotsky said.
A series of meetings to educate the public about air quality standards in advance of rulemaking continue Wednesday in Glenwood Springs.
Coons and other experts will discuss the situation starting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Glenwood Community Center, 100 Wulfsohn Road. Call 970-243-0002 for more information.