Region exceeds EPA limit

The future is looking murky for the Four Corners. As the local cloud of pollution grows thicker, northern New Mexico’s San Juan County has officially crossed the federal threshold for ozone pollution. Now the nation’s newest nonattainment area for air pollution will soon be the subject of Environmental Protection Agency remediation.

The region’s two coal-fired power plants, tens of thousands of oil and gas compressors, motor vehicle exhaust, industrial facilities, and gas and chemical vapors are major contributors to the region’s worsening air quality. When these nitrogen oxide emissions combine with volatile organic compounds and cook in the sun, a substance called ozone forms. Ozone, or smog, is particularly toxic for children and those who are active outdoors. When inhaled, ozone triggers respiratory ailments, including reduced lung capacity, bronchitis and aggravation of asthma.

Recognizing these health hazards, the Environmental Protection Agency significantly strengthened its air quality standards for ground-level ozone in early March of this year. By signing its most stringent ozone standards ever, the agency took steps to improve public health and protect sensitive trees and plants.

Improving the standard to 75 parts per billion from 80 ppb has had relatively immediate impacts in the Four Corners. Two years ago, the New Mexico Environmental Department installed an ozone monitor at Navajo Reservoir. This year, the monitor has registered an average ozone reading of 77 parts per billion, well above the new standard and high enough to trigger EPA action.

Returning to compliance will be a major and costly undertaking, according to Mary Uhl, of the New Mexico Air Quality Bureau. She said that she expects the federal agency to have an action plan in place by 2010 and offsets and mitigations on all new and existing pollution sources should be expected.

“The state will have to come up with a plan that shows the EPA the steps that will be taken to bring the area back into compliance,” she said.  Uhl added that ozone is a mysterious pollutant that accounts for the high reading in the relatively remote areas near the reservoir. Nitrogen oxide often migrates before a chemical alteration occurs and ozone forms. And as chance has it, the Four Corners Power Plant, located just southwest of Farmington, is the nation’s largest single emitter of nitrogen oxide.

When the new standards were announced, Christopher Dann, of the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division, commented that nonattainment could also be in the near future for La Plata County. He noted that a variety of factors – topped by coal-fired power generation – are at play in the region’s deteriorating air quality. “Certainly, the existing power plants and proposal for a new power plant (Desert Rock), along with impacts associated with oil and gas development, are a big part of this,” he said. “But the region’s booming population is also coming into play, and you’re seeing more cars and more emissions all the time.”


National parks could open to bikes

Mountain bikers may have gained an unusual ally – the Bush Administration. President George W. Bush, an avid but accident-prone cyclist, is currently taking steps to open some national parks to mountain biking.

The National Park Service is preparing a rule that will allow park managers to open select trails to knobby tires. The proposed rule is expected to be drafted prior to Nov. 15 and finalized before Bush leaves office. An NPS spokesman commented that the rule is in response to public demand.

The group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, is strongly opposed to the plan to open more backcountry trails to “mountain bicycles.” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch noted that this proposed regulation is well past the proposed deadlines announced this summer by the White House Chief of Staff.

 “This is a lame duck gift for our Mountain-Biker-in-Chief,” he said. “With all the troubles facing the country, the White House should be concerned about more than where the president can ride his bike.”

PEER added that “mountain biking on narrow trails may damage resources and conflict with visitor enjoyment,” and noted that the National Park Service adopted regulations for bicycles in 1987 for this reason.

The International Mountain Biking Association has a decidedly different view of mountain biking in national parks. “Bicycling is a good fit for many national parks,” said IMBA Executive Director Mike Van Abel. “It’s a quiet, low-impact, family-friendly activity that provides a great way to get adults and kids excited about exploring America’s most scenic places. We’re very pleased that the NPS intends to update its regulations to better serve visitors.”

Once it is officially announced, the pending regulation change will be followed by a public comment period.


Local alternative energy gets boost

Big dollars are flowing into La Plata County for alternative energy. A cooperative local effort recently procured $1.2 million in state grant funding for a variety of projects.

Called the “New Energy Communities Initiative,” the State of Colorado effort directs   Energy Impact Assistance funds to regional efforts. The purpose of the initiative is to stimulate economic growth, enhance sustainability, strengthen the economy and reward regional collaboration throughout Colorado.

Under the leadership of Aileen Tracy, the executive director of 4CORE, a variety of entities prepared the local application. La Plata County, the City of Durango, the towns of Ignacio and Bayfield, and other sustainability advocates were all involved in the effort. The grant will fund the following projects:

- $500,000 for greening public facilities including energy efficiency equipment and renewable energy equipment for local government facilities

-$100,000 for renewable energy demonstration projects to implement some highly visible renewable energy projects (most likely solar) in the region

-$100,000 for LED (light emitting diode) projects in public spaces

-$100,000 to support local governments’ efforts to “go green”

-$400,000 for the Eco-House, an eco-education building that will be tied to the Durango Discovery Museum


Southwest goes on the map

Long known as the “Great Empty,” the Intermountain West is steadily emerging as the “New American Heartland,” according to a study by the Brookings Institution. The states of Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah are now at the center of the nation’s most radical and consequential demographic, land use and economic transformations, the report said.

Mark Muro and Robert Lang, the study’s authors, commented that the region’s economy, people and politics have become more central to the workings of the nation. As evidence, the two pointed to Colorado and New Mexico as two of the 2008 election’s swing states. They added that the entire West is moving into the “kingmaking role” currently enjoyed by the Midwest.

The report goes on to note that the Intermountain West is on the cutting edge of new urban forms, home to the new “megapolitan areas” of Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Albuquerque.

– Will Sands




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January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows