Smokescreen: Are Colorado officials countering misinformation on smog — or hiding behind it?
State leaders’ preoccupation with the impacts of out-of-state wildfire smoke has drawn criticism
The East Troublesome Fire burns north of Granby on Oct. 22, 2020. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
The East Troublesome Fire burns north of Granby on Oct. 22, 2020. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
The dozen or so speakers who testified in opposition to Colorado’s proposed Employee Traffic Reduction Program at an August hearing came from a variety of backgrounds. They made a variety of arguments. But there was one point that many of them repeated over and over again: They weren’t sure why the Air Quality Control Commission was bothering to regulate transportation emissions at all.
“Colorado needs to accurately assess the problem to develop real solutions,” said Craig Rowland, an attorney representing the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “Air quality regulations will not prevent wildfires or international emissions.”
“There’s so many issues affecting air quality in Colorado, the biggest one lately being the forest fires,” said resident Jacob Harold, “which I think needs to be the focus as opposed to the transportation issues.”
“I also hope that you will continue to use solid scientific approaches, especially in relation to forest fires, which is the primary and largest factor that is affecting our air quality today,” said Sandy Harem, an educator from Larimer County.
Harem was wrong. When it comes to Colorado’s biggest and longest-running air quality problem, ground-level ozone pollution, there’s broad agreement among scientists that wildfire smoke can and does have an impact. But while that impact hasn’t yet been precisely quantified, opinions of its size generally range from modest to minimal — increasing ozone levels incrementally under certain conditions, but far from the “primary and largest factor.”
And yet, throughout Colorado’s worst summer for air quality in many years, misconceptions about the role of wildfire smoke have been everywhere, from formal testimony before the AQCC to everyday small talk along the Front Range.
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“People love to talk about the weather, and this summer it’s been all about the air,” said Melissa Colonno, a Denver resident and biking advocate. “I take it as an opportunity to talk about the bad air, and people will often say, ‘Oh, yeah, the fires.’”
In fact, most ground-level ozone — formed by chemical reactions between sunlight and pollutants like nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds — is caused by local sources like gas-powered vehicle engines and oil and gas production, as well as “background” ozone that drifts in from out-of-state.
“That surprises more people than I would think it would — a lot of people say, ‘Oh, really? Fracking? That causes that?’” Colonno said. “Lots of acquaintances and friends, people who I generally consider to be well-read and educated, still just have a lot of misconceptions about the air.”
In the view of many environmental activists, such claims often aren’t just innocent misunderstandings but rather deliberate ploys by fossil-fuel interests and other polluters to portray the Front Range’s smoggy skies as beyond anyone’s control.
And some have been left wondering whether state officials are — intentionally or not — playing right into the hands of those spreading such misinformation.
Colorado’s Front Range has struggled for decades with ozone, a hazardous air pollutant linked to a wide variety of negative respiratory and cardiovascular impacts, and ozone levels in and around the Denver metro area remain well above federal health standards. In comments from state officials this summer, including leadership at the Air Pollution Control Division, some clean-air activists see a familiar effort to scapegoat out-of-state smoke.
“It’s always somebody else’s problem, it’s always something out of their control, something they can’t deal with,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “It’s how the division conducts its business. They come up with smoke and mirrors to try to cover up these problems.”
“In all of our public communications around air quality this summer, we have worked hard to clearly and honestly discuss the complicated issues involved, including the contributions of wildfire smoke to ozone levels,” APCD spokesperson Andrew Bare wrote in an emailed response to questions. “Good science requires recognizing and acknowledging gaps in information, which we have always sought to do.
“Right now, the best available evidence suggests that wildfire smoke has contributed to elevated ozone pollution levels at points during the summer,” Bare added. “But that doesn’t in any way reduce our commitment to reducing ozone pollution through strategies we can implement.”
‘How significantly is it contributing?’
There’s broad agreement among atmospheric scientists that smoke from wildfires can contribute to increases in ozone levels, said Bill Hayes, air quality program coordinator with Boulder County Public Health. But that’s where the certainty ends.
“Where the question is, is how does it enhance ozone — we don’t really know what the mechanism is,” Hayes said in an interview. “And then what it comes down to is, how significantly is it contributing? And that’s where you get a range of opinions.”
Data from an air monitoring station operated by Boulder County near Boulder Reservoir was analyzed by Colorado State University researchers in a recent study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research. While the study concluded that the presence of wildfire smoke leads to “higher expected (ozone) mixing ratios,” it also noted that a majority of the high-ozone days analyzed were “not impacted by wildfire smoke.”
“We’ve got four years of good data,” Hayes said. “Our own data, and our own trusted atmospheric scientists up at CSU, agree that wildfire smoke can enhance ozone, but I don’t think we feel like it’s a significant increase.”
“They weren’t able to say it was, say, plus-five parts per billion,” Hayes said. “We just can’t get to that level (of precision) yet.”
That lack of precision, however, hasn’t stopped state leaders from consistently placing a focus on smoke impacts when discussing this summer’s poor air quality.
In its official air quality forecasts, the APCD has routinely described ozone pollution as being “enhanced” by wildfire smoke, despite not being able to quantify those impacts, causing some air-quality scientists to voice concerns that its advisories may be confusing the public.
“The influence of wildfire smoke on ozone pollution is a complicated and nuanced issue — depending on a number of variables (the age of the wildfire smoke, the biomass consumed in the fire that produced the smoke, the distance the smoke travelled) wildfire smoke can either contribute to ozone pollution or — in some cases — inhibit it,” Bare wrote in an email.
Bare said that the APCD would have a “clearer understanding” of how much wildfire smoke impacted 2021 ozone levels when it completes an analysis next year. The division is also expected to give a preliminary briefing on the 2021 ozone season to the AQCC at its October hearing.
Gov. Jared Polis also consistently drew attention to wildfire smoke rather than ozone in social-media posts and public comments on air quality issues throughout the summer, though he did acknowledge that “we all have a role to play” in a July 28 Facebook message that encouraged Coloradans to conserve energy and reduce car travel.
“You may have noticed our poor air quality in Colorado recently — including smoke from wildfires driven by climate change in western states,” Polis wrote. “There’s little things we can do to reduce air pollution that make a big difference together.”
Like many Coloradans, Polis’ focus on air quality has corresponded closely to the onset of specific smoke events, which — despite bringing high levels of fine particle pollution, or PM2.5, that result in dramatic layers of haze and reddish evening glows along the Front Range — aren’t necessarily the highest-risk air-quality days.
“What happens in California should stay in California. Unfortunately this weekend it isn’t,” Polis wrote on Facebook on Aug. 7. “A plume of smoke from the fires in California are leading to some of the worst air quality we’ve ever had across Colorado. … The air should be a bit better Sunday and then improve rapidly as the week progresses.”
In fact, while visibility and PM2.5 pollution did “improve rapidly” that week, ozone levels at many monitoring stations along the Front Range rose or remained elevated above their three-year average, state data shows.
“The general public, when they look out and can’t see the Continental Divide, they see all that smoke in the air, that’s what gets people’s attention,” Hayes said. “We can see the wildfire smoke, so for many people that’s the perception — it’s the wildfire smoke that’s the problem. Typically, you don’t see ozone.”
'This possible interference issue'
Like other state officials, APCD director Garry Kaufman has consistently sought to place an emphasis on the impacts of wildfire smoke, including in remarks during his monthly director’s report at meetings of the AQCC. Those remarks to the commission have become some of the few opportunities for Coloradans to hear directly from the state’s top air-quality regulator, who has repeatedly refused interview requests throughout the summer.
“Not a whole lot to say, other than just an acknowledgement of really bad air quality,” Kaufman said at the AQCC’s August hearing. “It’s unfortunately a very stark reminder of some of the realities associated with climate change, and the effect that has on wildfire season.”
“In addition to the smoke, it’s just been a bad, hot, dry summer with a lot of high pressure systems that have created very conducive situations for forming ozone,” he added.
A month earlier, at the AQCC’s July meeting, Kaufman had gone even further, floating the possibility — discussed in an April study by researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency — that distant wildfire smoke could be not only elevating Front Range ozone levels but also interfering with monitoring equipment to such an extent that the state's ozone data may be broadly unreliable.
“It raises the question of what we are we actually seeing out there,” he told commissioners.
In response to a question from AQCC commissioner Elise Jones about how the state could “up our ante” to reduce ozone and achieve federal health standards, Kaufman again pivoted to the possibility of monitoring interference.
“We’re certainly thinking about it,” replied Kaufman. “I do think we want to also look into this possible interference issue — and you know, I don’t think that’s explaining everything, but we just haven’t done enough looking at that to understand what the magnitude of that may be, if there is anything. We just don’t know.”
Audio: Colorado Air Pollution Control Division Director Garry Kaufman responds to a question during a July 15, 2021, meeting of the Air Quality Control Commission about attaining federal ozone standards by raising the possibility of "interference" of wildfire smoke in ozone monitoring equipment.
“We haven’t been holding back on really great strategies for reducing ozone, I can tell you that,” he added.
In fact, just days later, Kaufman’s division would move to withdraw its ETRP proposal, which it had estimated would reduce ozone precursor emissions by 579 tons per year. The abrupt dismissal of the ETRP rule during Colorado’s worst summer for air quality in over a decade exemplified everything that critics found wrong with the state's approach — retreating on regulatory tools to reduce local pollution sources while constantly placing an emphasis on factors beyond the state's control.
Kaufman's comments about possible monitoring interference drew pushback from AQCC commissioners during a continuation of the panel's monthly hearing on July 16. Archived audio of that portion of the hearing is not available due to a recording glitch, according to AQCC administrator Jeremy Neustifter, but the meeting's official minutes state that "Commissioners noted that the paper’s findings do not directly apply to aged and diluted smoke."
"I think the answer is, monitors can always have misreadings," said Tony Gerber, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health and the chair of the AQCC. "There's no evidence that the recent high readings along the Front Range have been an artifact. They're accurate readings."
'Trying to buy time'
Two years ago, there was hope among clean-air advocates that a page had been turned in Colorado's long history of battling smog.
In a win for environmentalists, Polis moved shortly after taking office to withdraw a request made under his predecessor, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, asking the EPA for a one-year extension on a deadline to meet federal health-based ozone standards. The move was aimed at triggering stricter pollution-control measures that the state would be required to implement under the Clean Air Act.
"There’s too much smog in our air," Polis said in a press release at the time. "And instead of hiding behind bureaucracy and paperwork that delay action, we are moving forward to make our air cleaner now."
Now, however, the administration's critics see many of the same tactics at work in how state officials are responding to air quality that continues to trend in the wrong direction.
"It's all about trying to buy time, trying to hope for the best, and avoid having to do the tough things needed to truly address the problem," Nichols said.
Hayes, meanwhile, pointed to discussions among regional and state air-quality officials last year regarding whether to pursue "exceptional event" designations from the EPA, which allow for certain days to be exempted when assessing a region's compliance with the Clean Air Act.
“There was some consideration (of) petitioning the EPA to remove those ozone days (in August 2020) from the record,” Hayes said. “That did make us a little concerned, because at Boulder County, we no longer consider wildfire smoke an exceptional event. We’re going to be seeing wildfire smoke every summer.”
In the end, officials dropped consideration of such a request because it wouldn’t have made a difference for federal compliance, anyway: "Even if you removed those dates, we still did not meet the standard," said Hayes. "So it became kind of a moot point."
After another smoggy summer, many experts and advocates say that it's time for Colorado to do more to reduce ozone pollution, regardless of the precise degree to which wildfire smoke is a factor — and officials at the APCD say they agree.
"Whatever the exact contributions of wildfire smoke are, we remain absolutely committed to improving air quality in the Front Range and across the state, which must be done through multi-pronged strategies," Bare wrote.
"We can't stop a wildfire in Oregon from blowing smoke into (Colorado)," said Gerber, who stressed that he was not speaking on behalf of the entire AQCC. "I think there's debate about, if we know that there's going to be wildfires for eight weeks of the year, and our ozone is going to be out of control — to what extent does that put the onus on the regulatory bodies to do everything in their power to reduce ozone, to take extreme measures on the things that we can control? I think that that's really an open policy debate."
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