Stop the Rollbacks: Cleaner, Healthier Air for Colorado

For a quarter century, the Clean Air Act’s “new source review” program has protected Colorado’s families by requiring large industrial facilities to modernize their air pollution control equipment when they expand their operations and increase air pollution levels.

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Environment Colorado

Executive Summary

For a quarter century, the Clean Air Act’s “new source review” program has protected Colorado’s families by requiring large industrial facilities to modernize their air pollution control equipment when they expand their operations and increase air pollution levels. The new source review program is based on the premise that industrial facilities increasing air pollution levels in Colorado’s neighborhoods and communities should take reasonable steps to limit that pollution. The program recognizes that the most cost-effective time to invest in modern air pollution controls is when older, high-polluting facilities are making major capital investments in industrial expansion. 

But in December 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) weakened long-standing protections under the Clean Air Act’s new source review program by adopting a suite of exemptions that allow facilities to increase pollution levels without modernizing air pollution control measures.While numerous states have taken legal action to stop EPA’s rollbacks, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission approved these revisions in April 2004 and positioned Colorado to become one of the first states in the nation to adopt the exemptions. Although approved by the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, the revisions cannot be submitted to EPA for final adoption into Colorado’s air quality management plan until they are approved by the state legislature. 

All Coloradoans should be proud of the progress made over the past few decades in protecting and enhancing Colorado’s air quality. But important, pressing air quality challenges remain. And with brisk growth projected for Colorado’s future, this is no time to weaken clean air safeguards. Rather, older, high-polluting existing industrial sources and power plants should be asked to do their fair share to lower pollution. Now is the time to stop the rollbacks to protect hard-earned clean air gains and to ensure that increases in pollution from industrial sources do not worsen Colorado’s air quality. 

Local governments opposed Colorado’s rush to adopt Clean Air Act rollbacks 
The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission approved clean air rollbacks without careful consideration of the impacts on Colorado’s air quality. The Commission’s action approving the exemptions was opposed by a coalition of local governments including: Aspen, Boulder County, Broomfield City and County, Denver City and County, San Juan Basin, San Miguel County and Telluride. These local governments were concerned that the exemptions would allow pollution increases that threatened Colorado’s public health, environment and economy, and that the state was acting hastily to adopt these rollbacks without adequate analysis of their impacts. The local governments repeatedly and unsuccessfully urged the state to carefully examine the air quality impacts of these proposed policy changes before adopting them. 

Independent experts criticized the Clean Air Act rollbacks 
EPA’s clean air rollbacks now pending before the Colorado legislature have been criticized by several independent reviewers—including the United States General Accounting Office and the National Academy of Public Administration—due to their flawed analysis and misguided policy direction: 

– The United States General Accounting Office found that EPA relied on anecdotal information from the industries most affected by the new source review program to support its conclusion that the program should be changed, because the agency lacked more comprehensive data (GAO, 2003). 

– The National Academy of Public Administration, an independent, nonpartisan organization chartered by Congress to improve government, recommended that EPA ensure that the new source review program provides enhanced protection of public health and the environment while avoiding creating loopholes or exemptions (NAPA, 2004). 

The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission did not address these core concerns in approving EPA’s rules for Colorado. 

The exemptions would allow air pollution increases at industrial facilities across Colorado 
This report examines the impact of the pending Clean Air Act rollbacks on Colorado’s public health and environment. The report finds: 

– Colorado faces important air quality challenges. EPA has declared Front Range communities out of compliance with the federal health-based ozone (smog) standard. Colorado’s national parks and wilderness areas, including Rocky Mountain National Park, are experiencing significant environmental degradation due to air pollution. 

– The new source review program has been a key component of the state’s air quality strategy to keep rising air pollution levels in check. 

– The exemptions to the new source review program pending before the state legislature will allow for major increases in air pollution. 

One of the most damaging changes would exempt industrial facilities from the long-standing requirement to use the most recent two years of emissions as the benchmark or “baseline” for past pollution levels. The new rules would allow an industrial facility to increase air pollution to its highest levels in the past ten years without upgrading its pollution controls or taking steps to mitigate the pollution increases. As shown in Figure 1, significant air pollution increases could occur under this exemption alone. And this damaging change to the rules for determining baseline pollution levels is only one of several major programmatic exemptions pending approval by the state legislature. 

Our technical analysis of the so-called “baseline” exemption indicates that Front Range counties could suffer significant increases in smog-forming pollutants because of rising pollution levels at large industrial sources. In fact, ozone-forming volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen from large industrial sources could far exceed the levels assumed in the state’s plan for restoring healthy air and meeting the federal health-based ozone standard. Despite repeated requests, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission failed to conduct a similar detailed technical analysis before rushing to approve these exemptions. 

Statewide, pollutants that contribute to harmful particulate pollution, haze and acid deposition could rise substantially under the new baseline exemption, with potentially a 78 percent increase in allowable sulfur dioxide emissions, a 34 percent increase in allowable particulate pollution emissions and a 22 percent increase in allowable nitrogen oxide emissions from large industrial facilities. Appendix A describes the methodology used in this analysis and contains maps showing potential emissions increases by pollutant for affected counties. 

Colorado should be strengthening—not weakening—air quality protections. For example, if coal-fired power plants in Colorado were required to install present day air pollution controls, harmful sulfur dioxide emissions from these sources could be reduced by 67 percent and oxides of nitrogen could be reduced by 78 percent (See Appendix B). 

Coloradoans cherish healthy air, blue skies and inspiring mountain vistas. The rollbacks approved by the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission conflict with these important values. The state legislature should stop these rollbacks and require a thoughtful, credible analysis before approving action that weakens vital clean air protections.We need to work together to lower air pollution and secure cleaner, healthier air for all Coloradoans.

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Tim Rains / NPS | Public Domain

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