080621-news-air-quality 01 (copy)

Shahid Syed from Michigan takes photos and videos at Garden of the Gods Park with hazy skies in Colorado Springs in

August

. Wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and Canada caused the haze. The region could fall into nonattainment status for failure to meet federal air quality standards.

High ozone levels triggered more than double the number of air quality health advisories this year compared to last year in Colorado Springs, even though the state did not see a repeat of the 2020 record-breaking wildfire year.

The state issued 32 air quality health advisories in 2021 for ozone in Colorado Springs, up from 12 advisories issued last year, said Andrew Bare, spokesman with the state's air pollution control division.  

"This past summer was horrible," said Andrew Gunning, executive director of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, a group that works on air quality planning. 

The trends mean its likely the area could face more federal regulation to help control ozone in the coming years, although the timing of new rules is unclear.  

The Environment Protection Agency could reclassify the area into nonattainment status for failing to meet ozone standards, a change that would require the region to develop a plan to cut emissions. For example, cars could be required to meet pollution standards, a measure that is already in place in northern Colorado counties, including Denver and Boulder, that have poor air quality. 

The region is already exceeding the agency's ozone limits calculated using the three-year average of the fourth-highest ozone days, not the peak days. 

"Often, a very high value may have been caused by an abnormal event, so looking at the bigger picture and not just at the highest values reduces that issue," Bare said. 

The high temperatures this year helped create more ground-level ozone, a form of pollution that can make chronic respiratory conditions like asthma worse and hurt the lungs' ability to combat respiratory infections, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Wildfire smoke drifting in from other states also contributed to poor air quality, but it is possible that kind of smoke will no longer be classified as exceptional events that don't count toward meeting air quality standards.  

The state has not asked the EPA to exclude any specific events, such as wildfires,  for 2020 or 2021, Bare said. 

"If we do so, it will be based on rigorous science," he said. 

Colorado Springs air quality advocate Nicole Rosa said she supports nonattainment status because it would force the state to take action that could protect residents. Emissions testing that would take the highest polluting cars off the road would be a concrete measure that could help, she said. 

"The fact we used to do it and we stopped is the most irresponsible thing," Rosa said. 

Gunning said the transition to electric cars charged from clean energy sources is likely to make the most meaningful difference in cutting carbon, in part because the region was designed for car travel. The end of coal-burning operations at Martin Drake Power Plant could also make a difference. The power plant burned coal for the last time in August. 

The timing of a possible nonattainment designation for the area is somewhat unknown. 

The EPA is re-evaluating its standard for ozone and could lower it by the end of 2023. If a new standard is set, Colorado Springs' air quality would be examined and would likely fall into nonattainment status, said Robert Ukeiley, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who works on air quality issues. 

The agency also informed Rosa in a letter dated Sept. 14 that it did not plan to re-evaluate the area's air quality until 2025. The long timeline frustrates Rosa, who doesn't see education or voluntary measures, such as asking residents not to drive on hot afternoons, making a difference. 

"It isn't enough to put a dent in it," she said. 

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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