Local air quality fixes on the way

The air is continuing to clear over the Four Corners Region. The Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed new clean air standards that could meaner fewer emissions and better breathing for Southwest Colorado, and the nation as a whole. In addition, the Four Corners Air Quality Task Force recently wrapped up its work and has suggested more than 100 ways to improve local air quality.

Last week, the EPA proposed strengthening the nation’s air quality standards for ground-level ozone for the first time since 1997. Ozone is the primary component in smog and poses significant health risks.

“Advances in science are leading to cleaner skies and healthier lives,” said EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson. “America’s science is progressing and our air quality is improving. By strengthening the ozone standard, EPA is keeping our clean air momentum moving into the future.” Ozone can harm people’s lungs, and EPA is particularly concerned about individuals with asthma or other lung diseases, as well as those who spend a lot of time outside. Ozone exposure can aggravate asthma, resulting in increased medication use and emergency room visits, and it can increase susceptibility to respiratory infections. The proposal recommends an ozone standard within a range of .070 to .075 parts per million (ppm). The current standard is .08 ppm.

The EPA also is proposing to revise the “secondary” standard for ozone to improve protection for plants, trees and crops during the growing season. The secondary standard is based on scientific evidence indicating that exposure to even low levels of ozone can damage vegetation.

However, the new standards remain a proposal. The agency is accepting comment for 90 days before setting a new threshold. If the requirements are tightened, it could mean big changes for the Four Corners region, according to Mike Silverstein, deputy director of the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division. Three coal-fired power plants, thousands of gas well compressors and an increasing number of vehicles in the Four Corners make it an area of air quality concern.

“The Four Corners is an area of concern largely because of coal-fired power generation,” Silverstein said. “But the oil and gas industry and the expanding urbanization of the area are also major contributors to the problem.”

Current ozone levels could make the Four Corners a nonattainment area if the new standards are passed. “Let’s assume the standard is tightened,” Silverstein said. “Southwest Colorado and Northwest New Mexico already have ozone monitoring, and depending on how things shape up, we could be in a nonattainment situation and looking at possible mandatory requirements for the Four Corners area.”

Regardless of the new standards, air quality is improving in the Four Corners, according to Silverstein. Colorado recently adopted new standards for oil and gas compressors; New Mexico has tighter air quality restrictions on the way; and power plants near national parks are now facing harder emission standards. In addition, the Four Corners Air Quality Task Force released its report last week. The document is the result of hundreds of hours of work by area residents, federal land managers, federal and state environmental regulators, and industry and tribal representatives. The Task Force first met in late 2005 and began a broad and inclusive collaborative examination of air quality in the Four Corners. The report is a compilation of mitigation options and outlines 110 different ways to improve the region’s air quality, should the Four Corners be declared a nonattainment area. The Task Torce is looking for public comment on the options.

“The Task Force members want anyone with an interest or concern to review what they have written and provide them feedback,” Silverstein said.

The report is available for review and comment at www.4cornersair.org.  

Fire restrictions to take effect

Fire restrictions are returning to Southwest Colorado next week. The Stage 1 restrictions go into effect Mon., July 2, in response to continued high temperatures, low humidity, and the abundance of dry cheatgrass and beetle-killed trees. The restrictions apply to an area bounded on the west by the Colorado/Utah state line, the south by the Colorado/New Mexico line and the east by Highway 84. The northern boundary runs roughly along U.S. Highway 160 from Pagosa Springs to Mancos and then roughly along the Dolores River.

According to the restrictions: campfires are limited to permanent fire rings or grates; smoking is limited to vehicles, buildings or 3-foot wide areas cleared of vegetation; all  internal-combustion engines must have spark arresters; torches with an open flame may not be used; and explosives are prohibited.

Durango Interagency Coordinating Group Chairman Mark Lauer commented, “There is a wide array of conditions out there right now. Below 8,000 feet, especially in the piñon-juniper forests, the grasses are tall and they are drying out, but above 11,000 feet recreationists will still find patchy snow and water running down trails.”

Fire managers say the next two to three weeks will be critical ones. “The most recent forecast anticipates the arrival of the summer monsoon period in our area around July 2, however the initial surges of the monsoon moisture typically bring lightning but little moisture,” said Ron Klatt, fire management officer. “It usually takes 10 days to two weeks for the strength to develop in these surges and bring significant moisture that lessens the fire danger.”

There have been just more than 100 wildfires in Southwest Colorado this year, and more than half of those occurred in June. The County Road 500 Fire, which occurred in mid-June on Southern Ute lands, has been the largest fire, at 8 acres.


Juvenile arrested after crime spree

A major crime spree ended with the arrest of a local 14-year-old last Saturday. The Durango Police Department took the juvenile into custody after he went on a night-long crime spree that allegedly included stealing from cars, starting a fire, entering Miller Middle School, tipping over motorcycles and releasing livestock from pens at the County Fairgrounds.

Officers initially responded to a fireworks call behind the La Plata County Fairgrounds.  They discovered bulls and horses outside their pens walking across the parking lot. After securing the animals, officers continued to look for the subject responsible for the fireworks. Almost immediately, officers discovered several trash dumpsters ablaze behind the fairgrounds. They were extinguished without incident.

Another officer drove through the east alley at 2930 Main Ave. and spied two Harley Davidson motorcycles pushed onto their sides and into another vehicle. All vehicles sustained damage. Other motorcycles in the area had their saddlebags open and property strewn on the ground.

Still searching for the suspect, another officer located five cars with broken passenger side windows in the area of Riverbend and E. 32nd Street. Each car had been rummaged through, and personal items were lying on the pavement.  A purse was recovered at 3235 Main Ave. At that point, another call was dispatched notifying officers of an alarm at Miller Middle School after the door to the school and several windows had been damaged. Police arrived and saw two subjects running from the school. After a chase, officers apprehended a 14-year-old Durango boy. A second suspect remains at large.  

Stolen property was recovered from the boy. A search of his residence yielded additional evidence. The juvenile was taken to Denier Youth Services Center.

Mercy to celebrate 125th birthday

This Saturday, Mercy Regional Medical Center will celebrate 125 years of service in Southwest Colorado as well as the first anniversary of the opening of its new facility in Grandview. The celebration will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. near the hospital’s main entrance. There will be refreshments, kids activities and music from the Blue Moon Ramblers.

At noon, Mercy Board Chairwoman Joanne Spina will open a time capsule that was sealed in 1952, when the hospital dedicated a new patient wing at its former location in downtown Durango. People of all ages who were born at Mercy are invited to have their picture taken as part of the 125th birthday celebration. The group photo will be placed with other documents and objects in a new time capsule that will be sealed in a wall at the hospital at an event to be held this fall.  

Durango’s first hospital, Mercy Hospital of the San Juans, was founded in 1882 by Mother Mary Baptist Meyers and four other Sisters of Mercy who traveled to the then-small mining town from St. Louis. Over the years, various hospital structures were built, remodeled and replaced at the original site until June 27, 2006, when the hospital relocated to its $82-million, state-of-the-art medical facility in Three Springs. A new city library is now under construction at the hospital’s former location on East Third Avenue.

– compiled by Will Sands