Ask any Denver resident stuck in rush-hour traffic about growth along Colorado's Front Range, and you may unleash a frustrated tirade. But despite all the new vehicles idling on the highways, Denver residents are breathing cleaner air than they were 20 years ago.
In the late 1970s, Denver violated federal health standards for three out of six major classes of pollutants, including ozone, carbon monoxide and particulate matter, or soot. Now, after decades of cleanup efforts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to award the city clean-air status. Denver will be the first major urban region to achieve the federal redesignation.
"It's been 25 years' worth of work," says Ken Lloyd, executive director of the Regional Air Quality Council, a state agency. "It didn't happen overnight; there have been a lot of federal, state and local efforts."
Richard Long of the EPA's regional office credits the recovery to the "aggressive but reasonable steps" that the city carried out. Denver implemented a stricter Inspection Maintenance Program for automobiles, switched to oxygenated fuels, and limited emissions of stationary sources, including power plants.
But environmentalists say the victory may be short-lived, especially if the EPA instates newer, stricter ozone requirements currently paralyzed by a lawsuit. "If we're not in violation of the stricter standard, we're close," says John Nielsen, co-director of the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies. Nielsen and other critics say the city has not adequately accounted for the increase of certain ozone emissions; they want tighter regulations to maintain a greater margin of compliance with the pending standards.