More than meets the eye
La Plata County’s ozone levels approaching EPA’s threshhold

The sun casts a shadow over the Lime Creek Drainage, north of Purgatory, earlier this week. The air surrounding the San Juan Mountains may not be as clean as believed. Air quality studies show that at times, ozone levels in the Weminuche are higher than those of Denver./Photo by David Halterman

by Missy Votel

That rarified mountain air may seem clear and crisp, but there’s when it comes to the local airshed. And even worse, what you don’t see or smell could be harmful. At least that’s the message of one of La Plata County’s leading health officials.

Mike Meschke, environmental health director for San Juan Basin Health Department. Meschke said county ozone levels, although acceptable under Environmental Protection Agency standards, are still at unsafe levels and unusually high for an area of this size. In addition, with the newly lowered federal ozone standard of 75 ppb, from the previous 80 ppb, La Plata County could be headed down the same non-attainment path as its neighbor to the south, San Juan County, N.M.

According to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which presented its findings late last month to La Plata County commissioners, area ozone levels have consistently hovered in the upper 60s and lower 70s. “Levels like this are dramatically unusual in any county our size,” said Meschke. “It’s only seen as ‘normal’ because we have 3,000 gas wells and two coal-fired power plants nearby.”

In fact, levels are so high that recent readings from an air monitoring station at the Shamrock Mine, near the Weminuche Wilderness border, were higher than those in metropolitan Denver. According to the CDPHE, such ozone levels are common to cities with half a million people or more.

And while La Plata County has yet to cross the non-attainment barrier, Meschke notes if the Bush Administration had not stepped in last March with a last-minute increase in EPA ozone standards, the county would likely already be afoul of federal regulations.

“The EPA was advocating levels in the 60 to 70 ppb range but it was pushed back to 75 ppb after the White House intervened,” he said.

At higher levels, ground-level ozone, a clear, odorless compound, can trigger myriad health effects, including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation and congestion. It is especially harmful to children, the elderly or people with compromised respiratory systems due to conditions such as asthma or bronchitis. However, healthy adults, particularly those who spend a lot of time outdoors in the summer working or exercising, are not immune. “Even healthy individuals will incur damage to the lining of their lungs at these levels,” Meschke said. “And with it being odorless and colorless, you don’t know if you’re breathing 40 ppb or 70 ppb. It’s like a sunburn in your lungs – you don’t feel it until the damage is done.”

In addition to human health dangers, high ground-level ozone (as opposed to that in the upper reaches of the Earth’s stratosphere) can damage ecosystems, reduce crop yields and weaken trees, making them more susceptible to disease and pests.

Several reputable health organizations, including the World Health Organization, American Caner Society and American Lung Association, recommend much lower ozone levels than the EPA currently allows. Furthermore, more than 14 states, including New Mexico, are suing the EPA over the new level, saying it does not go far enough to protect public health and welfare. “Fourteen states say the EPA did not meet their standards for public health,” Meschke said. “Basically, our public health is not protected at this level.”

La Plata County Commissioner Wally White said before being able to address health concerns, it must first be determined what the source of the ozone is. “That’s the underlying question,” he said. “If we have rising levels here, are they from La Plata County, or are they from across the border, in San Juan County, N.M.?”

And while the Four Corners Air Quality Group, which is holding its annual meeting this week in Farmington, is working on monitoring and mitigation measures, more may still need to be done. “Once in non-attainment, regulatory requirements kick in,” said Meschke. “The state will have to write what is called a ‘state implementation plan,’ which is a pretty onerous endeavor and requires a lot of control measures and oversight.”

Such oversight could have direct ramifications not only on the oil and gas industry, but the Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan Generating Station, both considered among the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the country. It also could make for dubious consequences for the controversial Desert Rock project, a massive coal-fired plant planned for the Navajo Reservation near Farmington.

For La Plata County’s part, White said there have been discussions about looking more deeply into the problem.

“The issue keeps coming up more and more, especially with Desert Rock,” he said. “We are paying attention and thinking about doing something in the future.”

One idea being explored is that of hiring an air quality expert to conduct an in-depth study. Another idea, being forwarded by Meschke, is that of installing an ozone monitor in Durango. Currently, there are no gauges directly in town, with the nearest reading sites in Ignacio, Bondad, Mesa Verde, the Shamrock site northeast of Bayfield, Navajo Reservoir and Shiprock, N.M. He said while the Bondad and Ignacio machines generally reflect levels lower than Mesa Verde and Shamrock, the population of Durango would be well-served by air monitoring here. “Durango’s a little higher, a little less open. Observing lower levels here would be good – and reassuring.”

The city, county and state could all chip in on the cost (between $100,000 - $125,000 for an ozone and fine particulate monitors) while the health department could maintain and regulate the equipment at a relatively low cost, he said. “The data could then be posted to a website so citizens could check levels every day.”

Josh Joswick, of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, agreed that with ozone levels already in the danger zone, the time to act is now. “I don’t think it’s enough to say ‘We’re in attainment, don’t worry,’” he said. “You don’t want to wait until we’re in non-attainment. If it’s hitting the threshold on occasion now, that should be an indication of things to come.” •



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