San Juan County air quality violation

It’s no longer official. Just weeks after recommending New Mexico’s San Juan County as the nation’s newest nonattainment area for ozone pollution, the New Mexico Air Quality Bureau has withdrawn the suggestion. Although faulty monitoring equipment led to the incorrect recommendation, the Bureau warns that northwest New Mexico remains on the cusp of nonattainment status.

The region’s three existing 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 worsening air quality. When these nitrogen oxide emissions combine with volatile organic compounds and cook in the sun, ozone forms. Ozone, or smog, is particularly toxic for children and those who are active outdoors. Repeated exposure over only a few months can cause permanent lung damage and even death.

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

The New Mexico Environmental Department installed an ozone monitor at Navajo Reservoir three years ago. In that time, the monitor has registered readings well above the new standard. As it turns out the monitor’s readings were skewed slightly in the public’s favor, according to Mary Uhl, of the New Mexico Air Quality Bureau. “We had an EPA audit on March 4 of the Navajo Lake monitoring station and that audit came out clean,” she said. “But something still seemed off to us.”

The Bureau sited a second monitor at the Navajo Lake station last fall and started getting disparate readings. “At this time, we don’t have all the answers as to what’s wrong with the monitor,” Uhl said. “At a minimum, the data that was collected in October was not valid.”

After three years of readings, the State of New Mexico had started down the path to declaring San Juan County a nonattainment area. However, Gov. Bill Richardson reversed this stance last week in a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency. Proponents of the controversial Desert Rock proposal applauded the decision, saying it affirmed their belief that San Juan County has “some of the best air quality in the nation.”

Frank Maisano, Desert Rock spokesman, also argued that the massive coal-fired power plant will actually enhance Four Corners air quality. “It is also important to remember that the air quality in the region will actually improve with Desert Rock because of our agreement to reduce emissions 10 percent beyond where they would have been anyway,” he wrote.

Uhl disagreed, noting that the Four Corners airshed is already compromised. Unless pollution is eliminated, Desert Rock will deteriorate it significantly further, she said.  

“We’re still on the brink of nonattainment in San Juan County,” Uhl said. “Additional facilities built in the area will contribute to us going over the standard. We’re especially concerned about Desert Rock, which will have significant nitrogen oxide emissions, and dramatically impact the region’s air quality.”

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is reconsidering whether it needs to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from Desert Rock. Comments must be submitted by March 25 and can be sent by email to:


Coalition demands local lynx habitat

A coalition of environmental groups is going to bat for Canada lynx. The groups are charging that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s efforts to protect the threatened cat are coming up short in the Southern Rocky Mountains.

Last month, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued its final revised critical habitat designation to provide for the species’ recovery. While the revised habitat designation vastly improves on the earlier rule in terms of the amount of lynx habitat it protects, significant portions of critical lynx habitat remain unprotected. The Southern Rocky Mountain region, where the Colorado Division of Wildlife has pioneered a successful lynx

reintroduction project, is among these areas. In response, a wide coalition – which includes Durango groups Colorado Wild and Great Old Broads for Wilderness – has notified the Department of the Interior that they will take legal action unless the habitat designation is fixed.

“Lynx are thriving in the Southern Rocky Mountains today thanks to the efforts of the State of Colorado and countless citizens who care about our native wildlife,” said Paige Bonaker, of the Center for Native Ecosystems. “However, lynx will never fully recover here until we protect their forest habitat in Colorado, southern Wyoming and northern New Mexico.”

Conservationists aim to include the Southern Rockies, including the San Juans where lynx were successfully reintroduced in 1999. State biologists report that the reintroduced cats have established themselves in the region and more than 100 lynx kittens have been born in the wild since the start of the program.

Colorado ski areas weather recession

The ticket booth appears to be weathering global recession. While Colorado resorts have posted a decline in skier visits to date this season, skier visits are still up over the five-year average, and three of those five years were the highest on record.

Visits at Colorado Ski Country USA’s 22 member resorts dropped 5.8 percent between Jan. 1 and Feb. 28. For the 2008-09 season to date, visitation at Colorado resorts has fallen 5.9 percent compared to the same time last season. For CSCUSA, a Colorado ski industry trade group, the numbers actually come as good news given the global economic realities.

“Visitation so far this season speaks to Colorado’s worldwide reputation as the best place to ski,” said Melanie Mills, president and CEO of CSCUSA. “It reflects well on our member resorts and the high quality experiences guests have here on our slopes.”

Mills added that the numbers also point to the fact that many people are prioritizing skiing and snowboarding in their personal ledgers. “Skiing is falling on the ‘necessity’ side of the ledger for most participants, who may be economizing in many areas of their lives but not when it comes to ski days,” she said.

Final season numbers as well as resort-by-resort numbers will be announced at CSCUSA’s 46th annual meeting in June.

County signs on for Earth Hour

Local residents can join millions around the world next week for an hour of darkness. The La Plata County commissioners recently signed a proclamation encouraging locals to take part in Earth Hour. The global event is set for 8:30-9:30 p.m. on Sat., March 28, and asks participants to turn out their lights and make a statement of concern on our planet and climate change.  

Sponsored by World Wildlife Fund, Earth Hour got started just two years ago and is now the largest event of its kind in the world. Last year, more than 50 million participated and the lights went out at the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sydney Opera House and the Coliseum in Rome, just to name a few. Even Google’s homepage went black for the day. Already 250 cities in 74 countries are taking part including Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Moscow, Hong Kong, Mumbai and others. To sign up, visit

– Will Sands




In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

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