Controversial revisions to the federal Clean Air Act prescribed by the Bush administration could be killed in Colorado -- or at least watered down -- if a coalition of environmentalists, Democrats and municipal leaders has its way.
Just months ago, forces wanting to halt easing environmental regulations for big polluters thought their chances slim at best. Colorado Springs' Ray D. Nixon power plant, for example, ranks in the top five in Colorado for Environmental Protection Agency-designated toxic releases. But in November, Democrats stunned observers and seized control of both chambers of the Legislature.
"[Bush's] rollbacks are really bad for our state," said Sarah Niess, an environmental analyst with Environment Colorado, a Denver-based nonprofit. "It's a license to pollute, really. It's time to take a stand."
More than a year ago, the Bush administration eliminated a program that would have required new power plants, and old ones that expand, to install pollution-reducing equipment.
Administration officials maintained their plan would improve energy efficiency and reduce pollution. Critics, including the American Lung Association, complain the move guts a public health law that has helped lower lung cancer rates, heart attacks, asthma and an array of other health problems.
Up in the air
More than two dozen states, cities and environmental groups responded with a lawsuit that was filed last summer in the federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.
Despite rising pollution levels along the Front Range, the state of Colorado hasn't joined that lawsuit. Instead, the state's nine-member Air Quality Control Commission, appointed by Republican Gov. Bill Owens, voted last spring to adopt the Bush plan.
But Democrats, who convene at the state Legislature in January, could overturn the ruling of the commission, said Sen. Dan Grossman, D-Denver, who describes the proposal as the "most glaring threat to clean air in Colorado."
"The Democrats have both chambers, so we can look at what the commission did and we can either introduce a bill negating the rollbacks or take some of the more extreme provisions out," he said.
A lot of leeway
The revised rules wouldn't alter Colorado Springs Utilities commitment to do things by the book, said Dave Padgett, manager of the utility's environmental services department.
"From my perspective, it doesn't change the diligence we go through to evaluate our projects," he said.
But Niess said the utility could gain a lot of leeway if changes go through. The utility could still adhere to the letter of the regulations, but actually emit more pollution without being required to install modern equipment for decades, she said.
Despite such concerns, Colorado's Owens appointed health officials say they support the Bush administration's rollback plan.
After the revisions were announced, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued a report concluding that the revisions would not prevent the state from complying with federal ambient air quality standards.
Douglas H. Benevento, the Owens appointee who heads the department, said in a press release earlier this year that officials "strongly believe [they] can ensure good air quality that would continue to protect the public health and environment for the residents of Colorado," even with the changes to the rule.
Niess noted the major assumption underlying the report was that Colorado is striving to meet the absolute minimum standards for air quality.
"Coloradans deserve better," she said.