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Colorado’s bad air this summer may be the best you’ll see, experts warn

State leaders worried about more wildfire smoke mixing with worsening ozone pollution

The sun rises over Sloan’s Lake in Denver on a poor air quality day due to smoke from California wildfires mixing with elevated ozone pollution on Aug. 9, 2021.
The sun rises over Sloan’s Lake in Denver on a poor air quality day due to smoke from California wildfires mixing with elevated ozone pollution on Aug. 9, 2021.

Along Colorado’s Front Range, bad air is becoming the summer norm. And while this year’s pollution, which data shows is some of the worst in decades, may bother you now, it is relatively benign compared with what scientists project for the future.

The question of just how bad air could get, and how much difference Coloradans can make by burning less fossil fuels, is vexing leaders as a foul smog engulfs cities from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs where more than 4 million people live and breathe.

“There’s no reason why it should get better. Front Range cities are growing, more people moving here, and these people will commute to jobs,” National Center for Atmospheric Research scientist Frank Flocke said, pointing to increasing metro Denver traffic. “The ozone pollution will get worse, with or without smoke from fires.”

For a second year, wildfire smoke from California and Oregon has been swamping Colorado with tiny particulates — ash, dust and soot — that lodge in lungs at the same time that ozone from vehicle and industry pollution is spiking to unsafe levels.

Scientists for years have projected that a hotter, drier climate will bring bigger fires, more severe droughts and worse air. And Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials said “a whole government approach” will be necessary to tackle a worsening problem.

“What we’re seeing this year and last year is concerning. Is this the new normal? I don’t think we’re ready yet to make that determination. But this certainly is consistent with patterns scientists have told us climate warming will bring,” CDPHE environment programs director Shaun McGrath said in an interview.

Among residents struggling to adapt, Arvada mother Jasmina Petrovic said she looks out a window each morning trying to assess whether the air is safe for her children.

“Coming from Europe to Colorado 11 years ago, I couldn’t have imagined that I’d start fearing I could develop asthma due to the bad air we’ve been having,” Petrovic said last week. “My fears are even stronger thinking about my children. Even healthy children are at a higher risk. Their lungs are still developing and they tend to be more active and breathe faster, taking in more air and whatever particles are in it.”

More smoke from bigger fires over more months in the West likely can’t be controlled. Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control director Mike Morgan, analyzing “the last several years of smoke impacts” and “projections for the annual acreage burned to increase over the next 30 years,” said the trend of deteriorating air quality will continue, threatening public safety, the economy and outdoor lifestyles.

State climatologist Russ Schumacher said summer surges of lung-clogging particulates “are likely to get worse.”

“If projections of future warming are correct, we’re not going to just stop at ‘a new normal,’” Schumacher said, because “the baseline will continue shifting such that what we consider a hot summer now would be viewed as a relatively cool summer 50 years from now.”

Folks enjoy outdoor activities at Washington ...
People visit Washington Park in Denver while thick smoke from California and Oregon wildfires hangs in the air on Aug. 7, 2021.

Warming climate = smoke + ozone

The rising heat is changing air chemistry, accelerating ozone formation as volatile organic chemicals and nitrogen oxides mix in sunlight.

This summer, ozone levels averaged over eight hours at all 16 of the state’s measuring stations exceeded 78 parts per billion, above the federal health standard of 70 ppb, reaching 94 ppb in Golden, 92 ppb in west Denver, 101 ppb in Chatfield State Park, and 82 in Rocky Mountain National Park, data show.

Even when counting only the fourth-highest averages at the stations, which is how the federal Environmental Protection Agency assesses state compliance with clean air laws, Colorado ozone  measured at least 70 ppb at all stations and at nine was 81 ppb or higher. In 2019, ozone at nine stations was below 70 ppb.

This worsening pollution puts Colorado on track for reclassification as a “severe” violator.

So far this summer, state air pollution control officials have issued a record 36 ozone “action day” alerts, every day since July 5, pushing residents to drive less. Inhaling ozone causes breathing problems and can trigger asthma attacks, and particulates also cause heart and lung trouble.

They’re also looking for new ways to reduce pollution.

“There’s a lot of work being done. And, absolutely, we’re open to innovations,” McGrath told the Post. “We’re going to have to get emissions reductions from everyplace we can.”

Environmentalists are demanding fast action. Colorado Public Interest Research Group director Danny Katz said free RTD bus and rail rides during summer and positioning zero-emission cars in neighborhoods for shared use would help residents drive less in gas-burning vehicles.

The EPA will propose requirements Colorado as a “severe” violator would have to implement: penalties for polluters, limits on vehicle travel, and re-blending of gas to a cleaner-burning mix, spokeswoman Barbara Kahn said. Federal decisions will be made, she said, in early 2022.