An unfair standard

When major newspapers in Denver and Salt Lake City take similar positions on the punitive nature of the federal government’s new ozone standard, we pay attention.

Why? Because, smack in the middle of these two western metro areas is Grand Junction and our air quality flirts with noncompliance because of background ozone, just like theirs does, but it’s a problem even farther beyond our reach.

Air quality groups have appeared before The Daily Sentinel’s editorial board supporting more stringent standards to address ozone pollution, and with good reason. Anyone who’s experienced a winter inversion can see with their own eyes the extent of the problem.

But as the Deseret News and the Denver Post both noted, background ozone blows in from other places. That’s little consolation for those suffering from respiratory challenges, but the fact remains that precursor pollutants that cause ozone may originate in California, Mexico, Canada or as far away as China, according to the Western States Air Resources Council. Some ozone is the product of wildfires.

So lowering the federal ozone standard from 75 parts per billion to 70 ppb effectively punishes western states — which have higher background ozone levels than other regions — for pollution not caused here.

The Post pointed to a Denver Business Journal story that cited an EPA white paper issued in late December indicating Denver will be out of compliance with the new standard 10 years from now.

“This is setting us up to fail,” said Colorado state Sen. Cheri Jahn. “When it’s already known that Colorado can’t make it, then is the goal to help states become more ozone-friendly? Or is it to punish them?”

The metro areas are facing scenarios in which businesses will have to cut back on activity and growth — something Ray Keating, the chief economist for the Center for Regulatory Solutions, calls “a federal cap on economic development.”

In the run-up to the new standard, the Center for Regulatory Solutions pointed to bipartisan concern among Colorado lawmakers. Business and labor groups were also opposed. Club 20 wrote a letter to the EPA warning of “far-reaching consequences throughout Western Colorado on our industries, communities and individuals.”

If Mesa County is found to be in “non-attainment” with federal standards, it would have to pony up for compliance costs. Paying a heavy price for other people’s pollution is exactly why we hear so much grumbling about federal overreach.

The EPA should halt the implementation of the 70 ppb standard until the agency can assure state and local officials in the West that the background ozone issue is fully understood, and that communities won’t be unfairly blamed for pollution they didn’t cause. It should have done so before deciding to ratchet down the standard to 70 ppb. Then again, if the background ozone issue had received the attention it deserved last year, EPA might have been forced to leave the 75 ppb standard in place.


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Sometimes the press gets caught up in simple catch phrases like quoted in the editorial, i.e. “have to pay for others”, “government overreach”, “federal cap on economic development” and other snippets that blow attention away from the root problem. The problem is ozone sickens, damages and kills plants and animals. It is a product formed from NOx mixing with hydrocarbons in the presence of sunlight.

The standard isn’t really an arbitrary number picked out to “control” activity. It is a number that reflects occurrence of a gas that has reached a level that it is doing needless damage. 75 ppb is too high and was originally a compromise to much lower number such as 60 ppb. But, unfettered development of oil and gas has had its effect of continually increasing and creeping the measuring amounts upward.

Yes, there is natural release of hydrocarbons and natural background causes; but it means there is only so much more that can be added and it becomes dangerous and deadly. What is really chafing some people is the recognition that only so much “cheap and dirty” development can be done.

Matter of fact, it doesn’t really make a difference if ozone didn’t form from all the pollution – the pollution itself is unhealthy as added hydrocarbons, burnt hydrocarbons, SOx, NOx, and COx that create global warming, acid rains and make it unhealthy and deadly. 

The EPA is guilty again of a compromise at 65 ppb of a damaging gas. But the law behind it doesn’t just drop on where the “violation” occurs, it goes back “upwind” to the contributors. And if the global accords go into effect on global warming, it will spread around to every “upwind” location - as it should.

But in this editorial, the Sentinel dropped in with dollar chasers of Denver and Salt Lake City to accept “collateral damage” as the “price to pay” instead of providing solution and encouragement of developing clean energy and new sources of economic stability.

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