Denver region sees more bad air and more to come, report says

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FILE – In this Jan. 24, 2016 file photo, the Rocky Mountains rise beyond the Denver skyline. An Environment Colorado clean air report released Tuesday, January 28 says Denver saw more than 130 days of poor air quality in 2018. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

DENVER | With the notorious brown cloud creeping back over the Denver metroplex, it’s no secret regional air quality has declined in recent years. A environmental group now says the metroplex saw more than 130 days with concerning levels of air pollution in sweltering 2018.

Denver-based Environment Colorado released a report Tuesday analyzing government air pollution data for 2018. That year, the Denver-Aurora metroplex was rated at moderate or worse air quality 131 days by the Environmental Protection Agency for high concentrations of ozone and fine particulate matter, the group said.

Those pollutants are linked to a host of health problems including asthma and cardiovascular disease. Most at risk are children and the elderly.

“No Coloradan should have to experience one day of  polluted air let alone 131, ” Eric Timlin said Tuesday. Timlin is a campaign organizer with the Environment Colorado Research & Policy Center. “Air quality will only get worse as our climate warms, so we have no time to lose. We must make progress toward clean air.”

The group released the report with the Frontier Group, which advocates for clean energy solutions for climate change. The Colorado Public Interest Research Group also contributed, as did scientists across the U.S.

The San Diego region led the pack of U.S. cities with 160 days at or above moderate air quality, the report said. But Greeley, Boulder and Colorado Springs all surpassed the Denver metroplex in days with moderate or worse air quality rankings for ozone and fine particulate matter. That pollution included dust and ash from wildfires, which are increasing in scope and fueled by human-caused climate change.

Ozone is the main component of smog, caused by fossil fuel consumption in cars, trucks, lawnmowers and other engines. Compounds released in heavy industries such as oil and gas extraction also play a role, accounting for about 15 percent of ozone pollution in 2018, according to the report.

The smog and ozone pollution usually increase on hot days. More people on the road can translate into worsening air conditions, when state officials will advise high-risk residents such as the elderly, children and those with lung afflictions to stay inside.

Environment Colorado chose the light rail station at West 10th Avenue and Osage Street in Denver to release their report. Light rail trains pulled in and out of the station as the environmental group and community members called for more investment in public transit and clean energy to lower air quality levels.

The activists said metro residents can expect more smoggy days without investments in clean-burning vehicles, public transit and other measures to slash greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a perspective shared by government leaders including Gov. Jared Polis.

John Douglas, executive director of Tri-County Health, applauded the report for calling attention to air pollution and climate change issues. The government health agency oversees initiatives in Arapahoe, Adams and Douglas counties.

“I’m really grateful to the authors of the report,” he said Tuesday. He said air pollution is often viewed as an “invisible” problem but is a bigger challenge than the recent public scare over vaping-related lung illnesses, which killed scores of people across the country.

“I wouldn’t want to demonize cars,” Douglas said of the pollution problem. “This is a mutual responsibility of all societal sectors.”

However, Douglas did arrive at the press conference in an electric car, he noted.

Speaking at the Denver light rail station in clear view of the Rocky Mountains, Douglas warned metroplex residents not to “lulled into a false sense of security” on sunny, clear days.

In December, the EPA lowered the ozone status of Denver and eight other northern Colorado counties from “moderate” to “serious.” That forced the state to work harder to reduce harmful pollution but also bring tougher regulations for businesses.

Polis took the unusual step of inviting the EPA to downgrade the rating, saying in March that Colorado would no longer ask for an exemption from standards by claiming some of the pollution was drifting into the state from elsewhere.

He said in August it was time to stop “sugar-coating” Colorado’s air problems.

The reclassification required the state to revise its plan to reduce ozone-forming emissions, which can aggravate asthma and contribute to early deaths from respiratory disease.

Last week, Polis announced he is taking several steps to promote the use of electric and zero-emission vehicles, part of his efforts to combat climate change.

That includes a goal to achieve 100 percent electricity generation from renewable sources by 2040.