By Heidi Leathwood
When I first saw ozone warning road signs in Colorado, I had no idea they had anything to do with health. Why were the signs telling me not to drive because of ozone? I thought we wanted to save the ozone layer? And why such an ineffective campaign? Obviously the signs weren’t working. The congestion never seemed to lessen, and instead it got worse.
I now know that ozone is dangerous when at ground level, that the EPA and WHO have health standards for it, and that the EPA is downgrading our ozone rating in the area of Denver Metro North Front Range has a “severe” unachieved status. . We’ve been violating EPA ozone health standards since 2008, and none of the state’s plans to fix this problem have worked. Last year, most of summer – 63 days – had ozone levels dangerous to human health.
Ground-level ozone is caused by certain “precursor” chemicals – nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds – which interact with sunlight. Being exposed to unhealthy levels of it can send people with lung and heart problems to hospital and even kill them. Short-term and long-term exposure is linked to the development of asthma in children, worsening of respiratory and heart disease, scarring of healthy lung tissue, depression in adolescents, dementia in the elderly, reduced sperm count and premature birth. So why doesn’t the state do more than put up these ineffective signs asking people not to drive? Are the signs really meant to protect health or are they just there to tick a box?
The state’s actions suggest they are afraid to bring the number one cause of ozone pollution under control, which is fracking and other oil and gas developments. The Regional Air Quality Board has data showing that oil and gas production and transmission operations in our state are the number one cause of ozone: data showing that this industry emits more of these precursors than many other sources combined, and certainly far more than cars. . So why does the RAQC’s proposed plan to address ozone allow “precursor” emissions from oil and gas operations to increase 11% by 2026, not decrease? Why has the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission – which is required by law to make rules to protect us from the cumulative pollution to which oil and gas operations contribute – not made rules to reduce high-emitting activities during ozone season or on high ozone days? The state actually has the power to bring our ozone levels down to safe levels by controlling oil and gas pollution, but it is not using that power. How many lives could be saved? How many healthcare costs could be avoided?
As usual, oil and gas production continues apace and is expected to increase in coming years, with no rules banning new wells or limiting activities in heavily polluted areas, which are often in communities disproportionately affected. Although they like to play the victim, oil and gas extraction companies in Colorado continue to make profits, producing billions of dollars worth of oil and gas every year. The oil and gas industry has too much influence in the political and regulatory space. It is time for the state to find some courage and decide once and for all to put public health before the profit of the oil and gas companies.
Heidi Leathwood lives in Denver.