Oil & gas operations’ effect on local air quality
Teresa Coons is serving her seventh year on Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission, having twice been appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter, and then again this year by Gov. John Hickenlooper. She’s the only Western Slope representative to serve on the state regulatory body, a division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The commission incorporates U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations into the state’s own rules governing air quality. Colorado can add stricter rules, but not less stringent rules than what the EPA requires.
For example, when a state exceeds federal EPA standards — air toxin levels set to be protective of the most vulnerable people, thus protective of everybody — offending communities are penalized with fines and are required to take steps toward compliance.
Coons is also an ad hoc member of the Mesa County Air Quality Planning Commission, a group comprised of community members who volunteer their time to study air quality issues. They also make recommendations to the Mesa County Board of Health.
While not yet a huge problem in Mesa County, “oil and gas (operations are) a major concern for air quality statewide,” Coons said. “The industry is a main producer of ozone precursors; it’s a particular concern because recently some Front Range communities have violated ozone levels.”
Ground-level ozone is different than the “good ozone” found in the upper atmosphere region, where the layer protects people from harmful ultraviolet sunlight. Ground-level ozone is caused when toxic chemicals react with sunlight.
However, “we don’t want (the human-caused) ground level ozone in our breathing space,” Coons said. “It causes lung problems, (and can hurt) developing lungs.
“That’s why there’s a standard for ozone.”
Ozone also affects sensitive vegetation and ecosystems including forests, parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas. It particularly harms sensitive vegetation, including trees and plants during the growing season, according to the EPA.
“We’re being forced to look at ways, through regulations or voluntary compliance, to reduce ozone,” Coons said. “We have to bring down the level of precursors.”
To address air-quality issues, and hopefully keep areas like Mesa County in compliance, new rules governing oil and gas operations were implemented statewide about two years ago, Coons said. The rules apply to all aspects of operation that involve emissions of nitrous oxides, methane and volatile organic compounds.
“It is a huge problem in Garfield, Routt and Rio Blanco counties,” Coons said.
If at some point more oil and gas operations move into Mesa County, hopefully, with controls in place, the county will not exceed ozone levels to the point of non-attainment status, Coons said.
“With regulations and controls, we hope to decrease the problem statewide,” Coons said. “If that doesn’t work, we will have a big problem with ozone.”
Vehicle emissions are another huge contributor to air pollution. In the Denver area, it’s become the city’s largest pollutant, and so vehicle emissions testing is currently required in some Front Range communities, Coons said.
Traffic, population growth and vehicle emissions is also one of Mesa County’s biggest problems, she said.
Both industries and vehicles emit tiny, toxic particles that, when inhaled, can lodge in the lungs and cause cancer.
Power plants statewide are additionally major pollution emitters. When Mesa County’s Cameo coal-fired plant closed two years ago, the county’s air quality significantly improved, Coons said.
Mesa County is edging closer to violating standards for fine particulates measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, she noted.
Both Grand Junction and the school district are taking steps to address the problem by switching to cleaner-burning vehicles.
A new citizens’ group has formed to study and seek solutions to air quality issues in the Grand Valley. To become involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Former Carbondale trustee Katrina Byars said she wants to bring a voice of environmental sustainability to the commission, and believes her opponent has served long enough.