New federal clean-air rules: Good for our health, bad for our pocketbooks?

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Colorado Springs Utilities’ Drake Power Plant stands to be affected by new EPA mandates.

Colorado Springs Utilities’ Drake Power Plant stands to be affected by new EPA mandates.

The latest ozone regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could make life more complicated in El Paso County — and not just for Colorado Springs Utilities or the government agencies charged with monitoring air quality.

The changes could mean new automobile emission mandates, controls on construction equipment and bans on certain paints.

The EPA is expected to unveil its more stringent ozone standards at the end of December. The standards could leave El Paso County outside of “attainment,” without any additional money to do much about it.

Under the EPA’s anticipated proposal, cities will have until 2013 to submit plans outlining their compliance plans. Failure to meet the new EPA standards could lead to a loss of federal money for road and highway construction.

Ground-level ozone, a key ingredient of smog, is created when sunlight reacts with hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. Cars, power plants, even office buildings are big contributors to ozone in the lower atmosphere. Exposure to ozone and the pollutants that produce it has been linked to asthma, bronchitis, heart attack and other cardiopulmonary problems, even premature death. (Conversely, the upper-level ozone layer protects the Earth from the sun’s more harmful rays.)

The environment takes center stage in the Springs next week during the Sustainability Conference, sponsored by the Catamount Institute.

El Paso County cut the number of its ozone emission monitoring stations from four to two several years ago. It did so in part because the area was in compliance with federal regulations at the time, and because it ran out of the money needed to maintain the stations.

But the rules are about to change.

“Our main concern right now is these regulations,” said Richard Muzzy, environmental programs coordinator for the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, the agency responsible for monitoring air quality in the region. “We’re on the upper end of attainment right now, and the more stringent regulations could push us over — all without the money to make changes.”

The two monitoring stations are at the Air Force Academy and in Manitou Springs.

Muzzy said his agency would need additional money to come up with the strategies to put the region back in compliance with EPA regulations. That money won’t come from the federal government. “It’s sort of an unfunded mandate,” he said.

The EPA estimates its new rules could cost cities nationwide between $19 billion and $90 billion.

Strategies to put the region into compliance could include annual emissions tests for cars, as well as the installation of more expensive environmental controls on CSU plants, a move sure to mean higher utility bills.

“Those controls cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions of dollars,” said Vicki Cane, permitting services supervisor for CSU.

When the Bush administration began to tighten ozone regulations in 2007, Denver and the northern Front Range were found to be over the federal limit. They weren’t alone; 338 other areas across the nation — but not Colorado Springs — are still out of compliance with federal clean-air laws. The Colorado state government has three years to develop a compliance plan.

Suggested controls in the Front Range include better controls in the oil and gas fields of Weld County, controls on engines used in manufacturing or other machinery, controls on power plant emissions.

The regulations could become even more stringent, with bans possible on architectural or industrial paints, automobile refinishing and other volatile solvents.

In the worst-case scenario, the EPA could impose harsher restrictions including fines on the owners of older cars that fail to achieve emissions standards.

The Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce is meeting today to examine the issue and begin to explore options.

“These agencies issue regulations with the best of intentions,” said Stephannie Finley, president of the chamber’s governmental affairs and public policy division. “(But) they have no idea how onerous the regulations can become to businesses. We think we need to examine the issue and take a stand, have our voice heard.”

Muzzy said that even if the EPA comes out with less-stringent mandates, 90 percent of U.S. cities that monitor for ozone pollution will no longer be within federal guidelines.

“Maybe that’s what’s taking them so long to decide,” he said. “Who knows? We’ve been waiting for these regulations since August.”

Where others see the potential for onerous regulation, Eric Cefus sees opportunity, particularly for business.

“It all goes back to efficiency,” said Cefus, the executive director of the Catamount Institute. “It really is tied together. Businesses don’t want to pay high utility bills, so they should check what kind of furnace they have; they should check how they get to work (by carpooling or some other means). There are ways to cut ozone, and cut business costs, too.”