DENVER — Air quality has been up and down in Colorado throughout 2021 so far, and a new report shows much of the same in 2020.
A report released Tuesday, titled Trouble in the Air: Millions of Americans Breathed Polluted Air in 2020, also shows the number of days where elevated air pollution occurred in areas across the U.S.
“The biggest issues here are actually how we produce our energy," Rex Wilmouth, a Senior Program Director for Environment Colorado, said.
Experts say wildfires contribute to the elevated ozone, or air pollution, but they point to climate change as a primary cause.
Researchers involved in the production of the report reviewed Environmental Protection Agency air pollution records from across the country.
A press release sent Tuesday said the analysis focuses on ground-level ozone and fine particulate pollution, which are pollutants that come from, among other things, wildfires.
The Denver-Aurora-Lakewood metro area was listed in the report's 10 most populous locations that experienced more than 100 days of elevated ozone or particulate matter (particle pollution). The area saw 129 days.
In a separate list, Boulder and Colorado Springs were listed in the 10 most populous locations that experienced more than 100 days of elevated ozone in 2020. Boulder saw 106 days, and Colorado Springs saw 104.
"What that means is there is a level where we definitely need to be under so that we’re breathing clean air, and we need to make sure that we’re not having these high pollution days," Wilmouth said.
The report also listed wildfires as one of the causes for creating poor air quality.
“I see it as a climate change, ‘what can we do better?’ issue," Wilmouth said. "There are wildfires and it’s going to continue to happen, and as we continue to have global warming, there’s going to be more wildfires. So if we don’t change what is going on, on the human side of things, and we are getting our electricity, and how we’re heating our homes and how we’re cooling our homes, then we’re going to continue to have even more and more wildfires."
Wilmouth said he hopes for legislation to pass in Congress, like the infrastructure bill, in hopes that certain parts of that bill could help mitigate the impacts of climate change in the future.
"The bigger picture is what is the human impact that we’re having on the planet right now," he said.
"Denver really is the perfect storm for bad air pollution due to a lot of different reasons," MSU Denver professor Keah Schuenemann said.
Schuenemann is a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the school.
She said location can be a factor in air quality levels for some spots of Colorado.
"I have a feeling it probably comes down to the topography of the region and the ability of the wind to sort of blow that air east of us and sort of clean out the air once a day," she said about Boulder and Colorado Springs. "So I do think that Boulder and Colorado Springs are popping up as air pollution hotspots because of being more like an in-a-valley situation. And that air pollution can stagnate there."
Schuenemann said large wildfires in 2020 may have played a role in the air quality levels, but the cause goes further than that.
"I think we can all kind of take responsibility for climate change. We all pollute a large amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming, which really worsens the air pollution problem and worsens the wildfire problem. So California isn't really to blame for their own wildfires, just like we aren't to blame for our own," she said. "Usually, there's natural causes that are making these things happen, but they're enhanced by these droughts and the big heat waves that we've seen in long-term droughts that we've seen both in California and in Colorado. So I think the common blame is for global warming, which is something we can all do something to fix, right?"
Overall, Schuenemann said the report is concerning, but there are opportunities to act on solutions.
"I think we all want to breathe clean air and have healthy children who don't have asthma. And I think we want to have healthy parents who don't have cancer. And so we all want to breathe very clean air," she said. "And I think the investment that we should be making and is trying to think about better transportation and not polluting quite as much into the air from our transportation footprint, as well as thinking about what we can do to reduce our global warming footprint as well."
Response from the state
A spokesperson for Colorado Gov. Jared Polis' office said in a statement Tuesday that the governor has signed 48 bills advancing clean air and clean energy, "including the state's first economywide targets of 50% pollution reduction by 2030, as well as legislation setting binding targets of 80% reduction from electricity generation, 60% from oil and gas drilling, 20% from industrial activities and 22% from gas utilities by 2030, as well as major transportation legislation that will help result in a cleaner transportation system."
The spokesperson said specifically on oil and gas, the state has taken an approach on restructuring regulations through the SB-181 process, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is currently undertaking additional rulemaking to seek even further emission reductions, including direct regulation.
"We will continue to work hard to address the sources of pollution that we can as a state, and continue to underscore that we need national action on both air quality and climate," the statement read. "It’s valuable to underscore that Colorado’s air quality has been significantly impacted this last summer by particulate pollution from regional wildfire smoke, and we saw similar impacts in Bend, OR and nearly every major city in the West- a robust national approach to solving the climate crisis is critical for Colorado’s future."
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