For the second consecutive year, the American Lung Association has hit La Plata County with a failing grade for unsafe ozone levels.
The yearly report, called the “State of the Air,” also shows that the number of days in La Plata County with unsafe ozone levels are increasing.
“Ozone, across the country, actually, was higher in a lot of cities and counties,” said JoAnna Strother, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association. “2015 to 2017 were the three warmest years in recorded history, and we know heat plays a major role on the number of unhealthy (ozone) days.”
To form the rankings, the American Lung Association recorded the number of days a county is above the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for a safe concentration of ozone at 70 parts per billion. Grades assigned to a community are based on the number of days that exceeded the standard, within a three-year period.
From 2015 to 2017, La Plata County had an average of 4.3 days a year above the ozone standard, earning it the “F” score.
More specifically, according to EPA data, La Plata County had two unhealthy days for sensitive groups in 2015, eight days in 2016 and four days in 2017.
The report shows an increase in unhealthy days in La Plata County, which has been on the rise since 2014.
When ozone levels are high, they can have health effects on people, especially for those with asthma or cardiovascular disease, Strother said.
According to the report, out of La Plata County’s population of nearly 56,000 residents, about 5,000 people have some form of asthma, about 2,000 people have pulmonary disease and about 2,800 people have cardiovascular disease.
“We want to see everyone protected,” Strother said.
Warmer weather is only one part in the rise of unhealthy ozone levels, Strother said. The region’s many oil and gas wells, as well as nearby coal power plants, are also noted as contributors.
“When we do start cleaning up polluting sources, we see air quality get better,” she said.
A spokesman with the EPA directed all questions about the American Lung Association’s report to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Several representatives with CDPHE did not respond to requests for comment.
Brian Devine, air and water quality program manager for San Juan Basin Public Health, wrote in an email to The Durango Herald that the local health department “supports additional monitoring of ozone in La Plata County” but declined to comment further.
La Plata County still meets the EPA’s overall safety standards, and the county did receive an “A” for particle pollution, which is tiny matter from sources such as diesel exhaust, wildfire smoke and dust that can bypass the body’s natural defense system and cause harm.
But Strother said the report is also meant to serve as a sort of call to action.
“It’s a call to the current administration and Congress to adopt science-based solutions to reduce emissions to stop climate change, and also to not roll back or weaken the Clean Air Act,” she said.
The American Lung Association’s report does not include data from 2018.
According to EPA records, however, there were 10 days categorized as unhealthy for sensitive groups, nine days that were unhealthy and one day that was “very unhealthy.”
The notable uptick in bad air quality days is likely attributed to smoke from the 416 Fire in June 2018.
A look at neighboring county’s scores: Montezuma “B”; San Juan (N.M.) “D”; San Juan (Utah) “B.” Data was not available for Archuleta or San Juan counties (Colo.).