Category Archives: APCD

To my local electeds: Why we need to monitor our local air quality

Dear reader: this is an open letter to the Fort Collins Council and Larimer County Commissioners about the need for a substantive air quality monitoring (AQM) plan for our region — because we cannot depend on the state to provide it. More importantly, the letter addresses the ultimate question of the purpose of air quality monitoring and its ultimate goal: to improve our air quality. Any rational plan for improving air quality would involve two basic steps: identifying the causes of the pollution, and, next, adopting measures to reduce or eliminate the cause. To date, the state’s AQM programs have been a regulatory failure, and the Front Range public is growing increasingly dissatisfied with them.

Because such measures could become contentious, and involve legal disputes, the quality and reliability of AQM data must be sound enough to withstand regulatory and legal scrutiny. This is a foremost requirement, and should be recognized at the outset if the ultimate goal of improving our air quality is to be achieved. Exactly what measures will need to be taken to reduce the sources of our ozone pollution are yet unknown; but identifying the exact sources of the pollution is an undeniable first step towards any effective solution.

I hope this open letter will help to inform, educate and inspire some of you to contact your own electeds as well, and ask them for the same.

Note on acronyms: AQM = Air Quality Monitoring


Dear Fort Collins City Council and Larimer County Commissioners:

We have an urgent need to improve and strength our local air quality monitoring (AQM) programs, because the efforts of the state’s AQM programs have been a regulatory failure.

Our air quality problems are a regional problem; no single city or county can effectively do much about it. Until local communities in the Front Range band together to demand, in unison and with a strategic plan, that the state take decisive action against the real source of ozone pollution, I fear it is never going to happen. I fear that Weld County, and in other O&G plays around the state, will continue to encourage the drilling of new oil and gas wells, and continue to worsen our already severe ozone pollution, until I am in my grave — unless there is a unification of the local cities and counties across the Front Range in demanding a dramatic change in state regulatory policy. I have completely lost faith in our politically hamstrung, obsequiously passive, operationally opaque, and publicly unresponsive regulatory agencies to do anything effective about our ozone problem. They have done next to nothing but pass around paper, and issue press releases that congratulate themselves about what a great job they’re doing for years. This is despite the passing of SB-181 in 2019, which supposedly gave local communities the legal authority to regulate the O&G industry.

However, SB-181 did not address air quality at all, and left the existing regulatory agencies largely intact, which have been slow to react to impacted communities. Just ask the Green Latinos organization how much they were helped in their battles with Suncor. These heavily polluted communities in Commerce City had been complaining for years to the state air quality agencies to no effect. Finally, after a dramatic failure at the refinery in 2019, there was a $9 million fine against Suncor, and part of those proceeds were used to fund a mobile Boulder AIR monitoring station there. This collected data for a year, which showed conclusively how much more polluted the air in these communities was. The Green Latinos thought this scientific data would be enough to prove to the CDPHE that more restrictions against Suncor were needed. Did the APCD and CDPHE listen?

No such luck; their requests for additional rules against Suncor’s emissions were rejected. The only change since then has been the creation of a department of Environmental Justice within the CDPHE, which sounds nice but functions little more than window dressing when it comes to tough enforcement decisions. The CDPHE marches merrily along, doing more studies, creating more task forces, and never, ever rejecting emissions permits from O&G operators. They seem to think they are doing a great job, such as the Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea
Community Health Study
. The webpage and report look great; but it changed nothing in terms of industry’s ability to get more permits and pollute more air.

If they are doing such a great job, then why are one out of three summer days now ozone alert days? What have they really done to address the “severe” category of EPA bad air quality rating? How much have the precursors that produce this ozone pollution been reduced? Is there even any mention of plan to measure these precursors?

To each of those questions the answer is a resounding “No”. Has there been any change in enforcement actions against known O&G violators? Ask EarthJustice, which has fielded an OGI camera operator in the northern Colorado area for the past several years. I recently profiled their 2023 report in this blog post: Certified Disaster: a powerful report hits home. Seeing is believing, and the OGI videos, recorded at scores of locations scattered across northern Colorado, are inescapable evidence of how O&G operators repeatedly violate their emission permits with impunity from the regulatory agency, the Air Pollution Control Division with the CDPHE.

As for a personal testimony of how just how bad the air quality in Weld Countyis and how it has ruined the quality of life for some citizens there, read this report from a local citizen: A Citizen’s Testimony.

Such powerful evidence shows how this is a regional air quality issue, not confined to a few local O&G operations.

The Existing Effort Is Not Enough

The existing air quality monitors for Fort Collins are shown its Air Quality webpage. There are six monitors inside the city limits, and two more in northern Larimer County, as shown in this screenshot:

All of these stations only monitor for ozone and particulates however:

Why is this not good enough? Because they do not indicate the ozone precursors, only the final result which is ozone. Ozone is not produced directly at the pollution source; the polluting source creates gasses known as ozone precursors, which when combined with sunlight, create surface level ozone.

Ozone precursors have two primary sources: vehicular emissions and O&G activity, which are two very different things. Any effective ozone management plan would need separate policies to address the two separate sources; no single policy can remedy both, as they will require very different approaches to reduce them. And any effective policies will need to know how much each source is responsible for its share of contributing to the ozone problem. The scientific process of identifying the respective sources is called source attribution, which is a well known and tractable problem in atmospheric chemistry. While complex, this is not unknown territory; the methods and procedures to identify these sources are known. What we lack is political will and a unified plan to address it.

In essence, what needs to happen is simple: (1) identify the source of the ozone precursors, and (2) reduce their creation at the source. While step (2) may be problematic, and politically difficult, what is not so difficult is the step (1): identification of the source. One would think this should be a no-brainer.

But this is where the state approach has been so woefully lacking. Because the O&G industry had exerted such strong control over how the state regulated them for so long, in the pre-SB-181 days, they were effectively self-regulating. And they still are, in some important respects. On average, active wells are only inspected by a state inspector every few years, because there are so few of them. All spills or emission events are self-reported by the operators. In nearly all phases of an O&G well after it has been permitted — and they have been rarely refused under the Polis administration — the drilling, the onsite operations, the fracking, and the production of fossil fuels from a well is done under a self-reporting approach.

This is why a robust air quality monitoring program — which collects scientifically valid and legally defensible data — is so needed and could be a key part of a strategic plan to reduce ozone precursors; and thereby our severe ozone pollution. The other advantage? Locally controlled AQM programs will not be under the control of the state agencies that have failed to do their job.

In fact, distrust of the state air regulatory agencies was the reason in the first place that local jurisdictions began building their own AQM stations: so that they could produce and trust their own data. Although there was never a long range plan on how to use the data constructively, there was enough public concern over their air pollution that they were built anyway. The company they contracted to build them was Boulder AIR because they are built with state of the art equipment to collect continuous, real time air quality samples, which are published on a public website within 15 minutes. They are the gold standard of air quality monitoring stations in the state. Despite their exalted reputation within the monitoring community, the CDPHE has never accepted Boulder AIR data as valid for its own policy making decisions. The reason for this has never been made clear, except for the fact that their own sensors did not generate it. In case anyone would like to inform the CDPHE: there is such a thing as learning from experience, and admitting when you are wrong. In reality, the CDPHE simply will not admit that it has no comparable data collection capability, and will continue to stubbornly resist that it would benefit the public if they would do so, but are only likely need to do so when forced by new legislation — which seems to be where this standoff is headed.

The standards and quality of the data which Boulder AIR stations collect exceeds what the state collects with its monitors. The majority of CDPHE monitors collect only ozone data. Only a minority can detect NOx at all, and even these cannot detect the difference between ozone precursors the way that Boulder AIR monitors can; and none of them publish their data automatically within a few minutes on a public-facing website, and store their data in the internet cloud. No other monitoring system’s data has been audited by the EPA and accepted into its repository for Air Quality Data Collected at Outdoor Monitors Across the US (see www.epa.gov/outdoor-air-quality-data)

Our local electeds really need more information on the comparative functionality of the various sensors that are being discussed.

Beyond understanding the differences in the how the equipment in monitoring stations works, and how that affects the quality of the data they collect, what is really lacking is a plan on what to do with this data.

What is needed: a strategic plan

What has become apparent after years of data collection by the state agencies and local jurisdictions is that none of this has been coordinated by any kind of overall strategic plan focused on the real roots of the problem. As so often occurs when the really tough questions need to be asked, there is every incentive to avoid them; or, worse yet, put political and legal roadblocks in the way of even allowing such questions to be asked. And even if they are asked, to deflect them away.

Such has been the evolution of developing legislation — any legislation — that can identify the cause of our ozone pollution, and have the teeth to really address it. This has been the political obstacle, where entrenched interests defending the O&G industry have obstructed any legislation that regulates them. Even the historic passage of SB-181 did nothing to address air pollution.

Local air quality monitoring began with Boulder County’s station at the Boulder Reservoir in 2015. Since then, it has built stations in Longmont (two), Erie and Broomfield. (The last was suspended for 2024, but Broomfield is reconsidering that decision based on recent survey; see Broomfield’s annual focus session puts … air quality in the spotlight, Daily Camera, 3/8/24) This represents a substantial investment by these local jurisdictions to get real-time, high quality data that tells them exactly what is in their air.

But is knowing what is in your air enough? Is it enough just to know to what degree your community is being slowly poisoned? For those who have personally suffered the health effects of such poisoning, the answer is obviously no; the cause should be addressed, not just the symptoms. But up to now, the only actions that have been taken by the state and local jurisdictions is to develop ‘ozone alerts’, and warn people, via text, email and social media, to not go outside.

This approach might be tolerated if the alert days were rare; but when they start to become one out of every three days during the summer months, the situation is no longer tolerable. It is becoming a chronic problem…and some kind of remediative action must be taken. How long will people tolerate inaction by our electeds on this matter? Although there has been an exceptional level of legislative action in the current term, even if all the bills dealing with ozone pollution are passed this year, they will still not get at the real root of the problem: knowing which ozone precursors are causing the problem, where the generation source is located, and which areas are being the most affected. All three of these phases of our ozone pollution problem need to be identified in order for a coherent management plan to develop. This will only be possible if there is a state-level coordinated suite of monitors, operated in a coordinated fashion, that is focused on gathering such data.

There has been some activity among the local cities that have installed Boulder AIR monitors; this deserves more coverage, as the entire region could benefit from their coordinated collaboration. This only makes sense, because the more monitors you can add to a network, it increases the value of the overall data. Just as in social media or economics, there is a “network effect” where the more nodes there are on a network, the more value of the data of each individual node.

And here is another unique advantage of the Boulder AIR data: its ability to combine its live data stream with wind vector data to construct images that can show the intensity a pollutant over a region over certain period of time. The exact interpretation of these images requires expert interpretation; but what is undeniable, is that these images are based on science-based data collected by calibrated instruments.

Here are a couple of images to suggest what is possible:

The above images suggest what is possible with Boulder AIR data: realistic two dimensional maps of pollution intensity over the nearby region of the monitoring station over a specific time period. Such information could be extremely valuable, I would think, to the jurisdictions interested in their

One caveat to the above images: they require a certain amount of highly customized work effort to produce by Boulder AIR, at the present time. However, in my opinion, these trial versions, like any trial version in a production process, could be improved upon. In my experience with software, I would see no reason why such data could not be transformed into animated images, like weather radar, given sufficient resources to accomplish the task. This is the power of combining the Boulder AIR stations data into a concerted effort: joint efforts could result in amplified benefits to all involved due to the combined nature of the data covering a wider region.

And, in the final analysis, this is what is needed for a regional approach to a regional problem: a linked network of monitoring stations capable of gathering uniformly calibrated data to produce a comprehensive picture of the problem. No other AQM technology comes even close to providing this type of comprehensive coverage for a regional area.

But asking the various local jurisdictions to continue to voluntarily coordinate efforts to share data seems wholly insufficient; which begs the question: to what end? No matter how much data we gather on how much our environment and people are being poisoned, this will never solve the problem. The only action that will solve the problem is to reduce the generation of the ozone precursors at their source.

The unfortunate ending of Broomfield’s air quality monitoring programs?

At its monthly meeting on October 17, 2023, the Broomfield Council made a impactful and unfortunate decision on their air quality monitoring programs during a Special Study session: They decided not to renew the 2024 contract with Boulder AIR, but instead to continue its contract with Fort Collins-based Ajax Analytics. The Council’s vote was based on strongly worded directive from its city manager, Jennifer Hoffman.

Having learned beforehand that the Council would be voting on this matter, a member of the Larimer Alliance signed up to speak during the public comment period in support of continuing the Boulder AIR contract. The recording of the meeting can be seen here:

City Council Special Meeting and Study Session – October 17, 2023

The Larimer Alliance has carefully reviewed the recording of that meeting, which appears below. A quick summary of the upshot of the meeting follows.  We believe this was an ill advised decision that is relevant beyond Broomfield, affecting thousands of citizens in the Northern Colorado Front Range. Therefore, it deserves the attention of the broader environmental community that is concerned about the dire state of our regional air quality.

(Note: Because the term is used so often below, Air Quality is abbreviated as AQ.)

A Summary of the Council Special Meeting

Here is the upshot of what happened at this nearly two-hour long meeting, which ended in several votes by Council after the staff and city manager gave a detailed, but not exhaustive, presentation:

  • The Broomfield Council was led to believe, by city staff and the city manager on their word alone, that the data collected by Ajax  is of equal quality to the data collected by Boulder AIR.
  • There was no hard data provided to back up this assurance of data quality.
  • The Broomfield staff and city manager also indicated to Council that state agencies have begun to use Ajax Analytics technology in preference over Boulder AIR technology, which the Larimer Alliance does not believe is the case.
  • Despite almost four years of successful operation, the Boulder AIR’s AQ monitoring contract for 2024 was not renewed.
  • Ajax  AQ monitoring contract for 2024 was renewed. 

It is due to the lack of information, and uncertainties produced by the staff and manager’s presentation, that we felt the need to speak out.

What Is Wrong With This Picture?

Broomfield staff and the city manager asserted without proof that Ajax Analytics data would be comparable to Boulder AIR data. Ajax Analytic systems uses screening tool-type monitoring sensors with trigger canister sampling.  These methods and technologies have never been audited nor accepted by the EPA.  In contrast, Boulder AIR data follows regulatory grade protocols, Boulder AIR monitors have been audited and accepted by the EPA since the started operating in 2017 at the Boulder Reservoir.

There was no solid evidence brought forth showing the comparable performance of Ajax  to Boulder AIR technology. In fact, it is well known by Broomfield residents that there have been numerous problems with Ajax equipment. One simple comparison can be made that clearly shows this: the number of valid VOC samples that were analyzed by the two systems in 2023. The Boulder AIR sampling program has been collecting data on many concerning pollutants that include ozone, methane, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen oxides, fine and coarse particulate matter, and over 14,000 VOCs samples per year, all at high accuracy.  Ajax monitoring provides screening grade indicator for total VOC only.  Their canister sampling collected some 280 samples last year:  a mere 2% of the Boulder AIR program.  Boulder AIR’s monitoring identified 22 oil and gas well pad emissions events, compared to 8 valid events reported by Ajax.

In reaction to the inconceivable recommendation by Broomfield City staff and  the Broomfield Council vote, a Broomfield resident started an online petition in mid-December 2023, calling on the Council to seek objective information and revisit its decision.  That petition can be seen (and signed) here:

BETTER AQM (AIR QUALITY MONITORING) IN BROOMFIELD

The air monitoring and air quality research that has been provided by Boulder AIR for local Front Range Governments over the past five years has been instrumental in developing a much-improved understanding of regional air pollution sources, air pollution transport and air quality and health impacts. Local governments and policy makers have been heavily relying on this information for drafting and passing stricter air pollution policies that have benefited all of Colorado citizens. 

The Larimer Alliance additionally comments here that a fundamental reason why local communities felt the need to invest in reliable local AQ monitoring technology was because they had lost confidence in their state agencies. The data, or lack thereof, that was forthcoming from the APCD or the CDPHE  during ongoing struggles with getting information from them by the pubic at large is what let the various communities to contract with Boulder AIR, and control their own access to reliable AQ monitoring data. This deserves to be a significant point to remember in the evolution of this complex regional process by the state legislature, should they choose to review this article.

Recognizing the lack of capacity (or interest) of CDPHE to provide oil and gas well pad emissions monitoring, regional air monitoring and air quality research for Front Range Communities, between 2017 – 2021 Boulder Country, Longmont, Erie, and Broomfield decided to move ahead with implementing their own monitoring to inform its citizens and legislators, and to present a united and common voice at the State level promoting stricter air emissions permitting and enforcement of existing policy and more protective air emissions legislation.  Recognizing the efforts and weight of this coalition of local governments, Weld County now has also implemented its own air monitoring program.  Interestingly but not too surprisingly, given Weld County’s historic support of their oil and gas industries, but of much concern for the health interests of the Front Range communities, Weld County’s monitoring program has been used to argue against the State’s efforts to reduce pollution: see  (https://www.greeleytribune.com/2023/04/15/weld-county-officials-challenge-ozone-data-referenced-by-gov-polis-in-directives-targeting-oil-and-gas-emissions/).

It is concerning that with Weld County having become increasing vocal in defending it’s oil and gas industries, and Broomfield’s withdrawal from the Front Range’s Air monitoring coalition may weaken the position of the Front Range communities in their quest to regulate oil and gas emission and attain cleaner air.

The Larimer Alliance supports the Broomfield citizen petition; but not just for the people of Broomfield. All people in the Front Range are affected by this decision. We strongly feel this would be a disastrous decision with dramatic consequences for our state’s air quality. The quality of the data produced by Ajax Analytics monitors has never been audited, and is, we believe, vastly inferior to Boulder AIR’s data, both in quantity and quality — and therefore vastly inferior, if not totally unreliable — on which to base regulatory actions.

We join the signees of the petition and strongly encourage  Broomfield Council to not rely on the on their poorly informed staff to interpret the information for them but instead seek objective information on the AQ programs, possibly by outside experts.  PREFERABLY BY directly consulting with  the two CEOs of the two companies, Dr Helmig of Boulder AIR and Brent Buck of Ajax Analytics to explain their technology and limitations to them in another special session.

The Pathetic State of Colorado’s Air Quality…and the Pathetic Attempts to Regulate It

This decision by the Broomfield Council involves a complicated nexus of issues which requires a bit of background to fully understand. Here are the salient points:

  • Emissions of VOCs and nitrogen oxides have been steadily increasing in northeast Colorado, causing a degradation of air quality throughout the regions.
  • The state’s regulatory agency, CDPHE, has been negligent in fulfilling its obligation, allowing the expansion of the industry with little regulatory oversight.  Rather than relying on objective data, CDPHE has vastly relied on the self-reporting of emissions by the industry, which over and over has been shown to underestimate actual emissions, often by up to a factor of three.
  • The NoCo region has been out of EPA compliance for surface level ozone since 2004.
  • Surface level ozone pollution has been increasing such that the EPA downgraded the quality rating from “serious” to “severe” in 2021 (see here for more information).
  • Air quality is monitored by the CDPHE in .various categories, but only a few of the station include the ozone precursor nitrogen oxides. CDPHE does not provide continuous monitoring of ozone precursor VOCs at any of their Colorado monitoring stations..
  • Local jurisdictions (cities or counties) began using Boulder AIR monitoring in 2017 to gain a better understanding of what is in their air, including the ozone precursors.
  • Boulder AIR monitoring stations had been installed at six locations and five jurisdictions by 2023.
  • There is no clear legislation, at any level, indicating how to manage or coordinate air quality data between local, state and federal agencies.
  • There is no clear legislation that spells out what to do with such data; in particular, what compliance enforcement actions that could be taken to identify and reduce or eliminate the source of the pollution.

In other words, air quality management in Colorado’s Front Range is an unclear and conflicting state of affairs, despite some mighty efforts and expense, which calls out to be addressed. It is my understanding that there will be some legislation during the upcoming 2024 session that will address this, particularly the ozone problem; but what form that will take is as yet undetermined.

Why Colorado’s AQ Regulation Is (Overly) Complicated

Colorado’s implementation of air quality programs is a spread over the following state agencies (with links to their websites):

  • CDPHE – Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment
  • APCD – Air Pollution Control Division, within the CDPHE
  • AQCC – Air Quality Control Commission, within the CDPHE

The APCD is responsible for issuing the emission permits to companies that create air pollution from stationary locations. The purpose of the AQCC is ostensibly to “oversee Colorado’s air quality program” though its exact role, and relationship to the APCD, is murky at best. The real purpose of the AQCC appears to be political, since all four members of its commission are appointed by the governor. The only mention of their relationship to the APCD on their website says “Please do not confuse the Air Quality Control Commission with the Air Pollution Control Division.” (see here)

Without further transparency than what’s shown on their websites, it is left to the public to speculate on how decisions within these two key agencies are actually made regarding our air quality. Given the significance of AQCC commissioners being appointed by the governor, while the APCD staff is more engineering oriented, top-heavy with specific roles related to monitoring, compliance and outreach (as its detailed org chart shows), it suggests that the AQCC has the final say on air quality policy decisions. That is pure speculation on our part, but given the heavy handed treatment of this issue under the Polis administration, it seems likely.

Then the Plot Thickened….

As if this the distributed nature of AQ regulation in Colorado wasn’t complicated enough, their regulatory roles were materially affected by the passage of SB-181 in May 2019, which mandated that the former COGCC (Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission), now the ECMC (Energy and Carbon Management Commission), not only regulate and monitor the wells drilled by the O&G industry, but now also protect people and the environment from said industry. The irony of the situation was not lost on members of the environmental community, which had been fighting with the COGCC for the past decade due to the environmentally malevolent, multifaceted effects of fracking.

This was a new twist for the ECMC, and was, in effect, a forced marriage with the CDPHE — which itself had no experience in regulating the O&G industry! This must have resulted, one can imagine, no small amount of confusion as the senior and middle managers within these agencies scrambled to cope with these newfound responsibilities. Because as with any sweeping law that attempts a major shift in a new direction, there will be many details that are later found lacking in its implementation. The hapless regulators can only cope as best they can when they attempt to implement the new law. Small wonder, then, that the rulemaking period for SB-181 took over a year and a half to accomplish — and even after all that effort said little or nothing to clarify the responsibilities for air quality regulation.

So, although SB-181 resulted in a complete reinvention of O&G regulation in Colorado by transforming the COGCC into the ECMC by replacing its previous appointed board with a professionally nominated one, it did little to resolve confusion over air quality monitoring and emissions enforcement. Small wonder, then, that local jurisdictions have had difficulty where in the judicial and legislative landscape they fit in. Lost in the wilderness might be an apt description.

Local AQ Data Do Not Matter to the State

The one tangible result that was an outcome of this reworking of the COGCC-to-ECMC transformation has been greater recognition of environmental injustice in the sighting of polluting industries, and the need to at least acknowledge it, if not do something meaningful about it. The Suncor facility in Commerce City was a particular focus, resulting in the creation of the Cultivando Project (see cultivando.org). The increased publicity of Suncor’s repeated air pollution violations did result in a $9 million fine that has created some additional monitoring projects. However, such a fine will hardly alter the behavior of a company with $41 billion annual revenue. But this brief spurt of increased monitoring at one facility serves as a example of regulatory failure: there has not been any real change in how the company operates. What does it matter if there is more data collected about how much pollution is generating if nothing is done about it?

In the end, in the summer of 2023 the Culitvando Project decided to stop their AQ monitoring project there (“After declining an EPA grant, a Latino-led community group ends air monitoring project near Suncor Energy”, CPR News, July 27, 2023), which should serve a stark challenge to other air monitoring projects: if there is no plan to incorporate the resulting data in on-going monitoring and enforcement actions against the guilty parties, the projects are likely to fade away — while the industry operations continue as before. This might have been the first time that an independent, community-controlled air quality data project collected data in a scientifically rigorous manner which directly contradicted what state regulators and Suncor said was happening; and still it was not enough for the state to admit it as sufficient evidence to take any action.

The Showdown in Broomfield: A Fateful Decision Is Made

All of the above information serves to show how confusing it must be for local jurisdictions to attempt to do anything meaningful with their own air quality monitoring. Since there are no legal paths for using the data to do anything legally binding, the value of the data appears to be limited to its scientific, health and political value. In other words, the industries and consumer activity that create the pollution are not even going to be identified, much less have any corrective actions taken to remedy the problem.

With this background, one can understand the sentiments and frustration expressed by the Council, its staff and the community members who made comments at the meeting. We have summarized this long meeting below to be the best of our abilities, as well providing more background information, which we hope will be useful to the community.

The high points of the meeting were:

  • Broomfield staff who conducted the studies of its AQ monitoring projects did a lot of work, over several years, directed by city manager Jennifer Hoffman.
  • Both monitoring systems had been in use since 2019.
  • All costs had been paid for by Broomfield.
  • That Broomfield has been subjected to a considerable amount of O&G drilling within and near its county limits in the recent past, resulting in a considerable amount of air pollution to the community, hence the need for accurate AQ monitoring.
  • Broomfield’s air quality staff interacted quite a bit with the APCD in its research.
  • The staff believes the state should be conducting and funding AQ monitoring, and is exploring other funding through DOLA, the Dept of Local Affairs (see cdola.colorado.gov).
  • The decision made to stop supporting two AQ monitoring programs was made mostly on the basis of cost to taxpayers, not harm to community health.
  • Jennifer Hoffman, the city manager, simply requested the Council to adopt the conclusions she and their staff arrived at, leaving no opening for further discussion or investigation.
  • There was no discussion of the comparative AQ monitoring technologies in question in terms of accuracy, precision, or timeliness of the data.
  • There was no discussion of the comparative expertise of the two small companies in question, though both are local to the area and could have been contacted.

Other conclusions can be made after watching the recording:

  • There is no provision for actions to take to cure or eliminate harmful pollutants at the source.
  • There is no identification of what levels of pollutants that are harmful to human health and the environment (only to “inform”)

What Was Said

Since the recording of the meeting is nearly two hours long, and because we would like to provide some context to what we say here, the notes below provide a timestamp index into what was said in the meeting. (Note: The numbers refer to hour:minutes:seconds as displayed in the recording’s timestamp) If interested, we encourage you to check our account of the recording of the meeting.

03:10 – Staff presentation begins with Renee Boulliard, the lead staff member reporting on the AQ topic. This was very detailed, somewhat technical, covering the breadth of the committee’s work from 2018 to 2023, including some specific pollution events detected by the Ajax and Boulder AIR systems.

11:30 – Staff presentation continues with Jason Vahling, director of Public Health. Described their methodology for identifying health events and dealing with them. They hired a consultant, Dr Megan Weisner, a toxicology expert. His department prepared quarterly updates on health concerns, which are shared with the Council and the public. Had monthly meetings with the CDPHE regarding pollution events, collaborating on their methodology.

Mr Vahling described attempts to secure funding from CDPHE for AQ monitoring, which were unsuccessful. A pointed comment was made how the CDPHE will not consider local data, even if it is “reference grade”. This term was never explained, but we assume it refers to data collected from Boulder AIR stations, which maintain rigorous research standards, as the data have been used in scientific journals with high standards for publication; we believe “reference grade” also means the data can be used as evidence in legal cases. Note that Ajax Analytics data were never referred to as having this level of quality.

32:30 – The final recommendations portion of the presentation begins. Notes that in 2023 the AQ program as a whole went over budget, and therefore intended to ask the Council in Q4 2023 “…how they should proceed.”

34:45 – The recommendation to discontinue the Boulder AIR contract is made.

35:20 – Renne Bouillard demonstrates she is unfamiliar with the Boulder AIR system as she misidentifies, and mispronounces, “mass spectrometry” as the technology used in its instruments. This is not quite correct, because the heart of the measurement system is a gas chromatograph, which is utilized in conjunction with a mass spectrometer detector.

36:44 – staff presentation ends

37:09 – in-person public commentary begins (there were 2 in-person commenters: one for the staff recommendation, one was against.

41:01 – phone-in commentary by a Larimer Alliance member begins. There was a 3 minute limit, which was filled. Council was asked to support Boulder AIR, due to its superior data quality for protecting community health versus the Ajax Analytics technology.

44:08 – Kathy Swan Bogard’s commentary begins. Her testimony went over time, so the mayor had to tell her time had expired after about 4 minutes. Kathy made a strident case for the Boulder AIR technology being much better than Ajax Analytics technology, which “has had trouble from the get go.”

48:08 – Questions & comments by Council begins.

Rep. Paloma Delgadillo asks a very relevant question regarding human health, namely what levels of benzene are considered safe for human exposure. Megan Weisner’s answer, the epidemiologist consultant, seem indicated the “highest weekly values” around the “production sites” (referred to verbally, not identified by name or a visual map), was “point four six” (.46 ppb), and the “chronic” level was 3 ppb (3.0), so while there is some background benzene levels it was “trending down” to the “background levels” of .2 ppb.

Ms. Delgadillo’s next question was equally interesting: is there any way to compare the validity of Boulder AIR data versus Ajax Analytics data? Or are they even measuring the same things?

Ms Weisner responded that Ajax collects the triggered canisters and has them analyzed at a lab at CSU by PhD students working under the direction of Dr Jeff Collett (see his CSU bio here)…that they check for 49 different chemicals in that canister’s sample…and totally did not answer Ms Delgadillo’s direct question…as her answer did not mention Boulder AIR, or how their data compares to Ajax Analytics data.

51:30 – Mr Vahling did address this question, and the first words out of his mouth were that “the state is moving towards the technology that Ajax has, the PID sensors.” That “they are getting more reliance on that…the real time data…that they’re collecting.” He then characterized the data that a Boulder AIR station collects only occurs for 15 minutes, and is then “extrapolated” (a mathematical term meaning to extend in the same direction) for the rest of the hour; whereas the Ajax Analytic data is “collected in real time.” (This is a grossly incorrect misconception which is addressed below.) He closed by commenting that the state agencies are not moving towards “reference grade”, but rather are beginning to use PID technology like Ajax Analytics…and then abruptly left the podium. Again, this never answered Rep. Delgadillo’s original question.

53:03 – One last time, seemingly trying to get a straight answer out of the evasive staff, Rep. Delgadillo asked if there have been any problems at all with the Ajax Analytics system, or “has everything just been hunky-dory?”

Renee Bouillard stepped up to answer the question….which sounded like an evasive runaround, stating that their contract with Ajax has a “90 per cent SLA agreement” and that this is “really high in the industry”, and that Ajax performance has been higher than that. (An SLA means service level agreement, and is common in real time industries that do continuous monitoring, such as computer networks.) The answer was, again, evasive because it only refers to the percentage of time the system was operating, not the type, quantity or quality of the data it produced.

53:50 – The city manager, Jennifer Hoffman, then interrupted the Council by stating that she did not want this “…to be a value judgement on Ajax or Boulder AIR.” That the two systems deliver “two very different…avenues… of information…” That the “…speed with which they deliver it isn’t a value judgement from our perspective.” That she didn’t want “Boulder AIR to be seen as more reliable or less reliable…nor, uh….Ajax.” And that “It’s hard to hear from the community…that we [i.e. the Council & the manager] don’t care about community health..from a public health perspective…that we should go either direction.” This was followed by praise to the mayor (“a champion of public health”), because now they have a “team of seven…which we didn’t have in 2018…”

We are not quite sure what to make of the city manager’s comments here; but she appeared to be extemporaneously seeking a way to remove the comparative quality of the two systems, and that the timeliness of the data availability should not be used as a basis on which to evaluate the two systems. (It is rather mystifying that if you are not going to use the timeliness or the quality of the data produced by a technology, to evaluate it….then what would you use?) By removing these comparative qualities, it would make it easier to suggest to the Council to choose between the two systems based on cost and the type of system: a warning system or a community health system. This is discussed further below.

The next council member to comment was Heidi Henkel. She noted that Broomfield had been going back and forth with the CDPHE over the past four years over who should pay for AQ monitoring, and specifically what toxicity levels of benzene are acceptable; as well, she states, as other public health sources have stated, there are no “safe” levels of benzene in the human body.

The public health director, Jason Vahling, answered Ms Henkel’s question, saying the CDPHE is “not interested in funding [such a] health study.” He did touch on new legislation and its rulemaking that focuses on “impacted communities” and that the CDPHE will need to identify the specific pollutants involved there. This is sliver of information indicating how the role of the CDPHE is shifting, however slightly and slowly, towards the regulation of the O&G industry, from which they had been prohibited before now, but which the passage of SB-181 changed. However, as the director says, this will not happen until 2025(!).

Upon further questions from Ms Henkel about whether the CDPHE was willing to pay just for the data collected by the Boulder AIR stations in Broomfield, he replied, no, because the state will not accept that data as valid because such data series were not created under the Clean Air Act. Note that the EPA has been accepting Boulder AIR data into its data series for AQ Data for Outdoor Stations for some time. This contradiction in the state’s position that the EPA does not consider Boulder AIR’s data to be consistent with the EPA — when the EPA has audited Boulder AIR’s data and has been accepting it for several years — is a strikingly inconsistent position for them to take.

Ms Henkel pressed on with her questioning, and next asked about a grant that had been submitted to DOLA (see above) about funding for their Boulder AIR stations. Dr Weiner responded, saying that Broomfield is a partner on the grant application; however, the grant would be used for analyzing Boulder AIR data “to find out where the sources of ozone are coming from” (i.e. precursors), but that it would not be used for further funding of AQ monitors.

This was indeed an interesting information, and is the first time, to our knowledge, that a government employee admitted that Boulder AIR data could be used to identify “sources of ozone.”

Next, Council member James Marsh-Holschen hammered away with questions about Boulder AIR and state compliance…which was somewhat surprising to hear. The Boulder AIR monitors are not part of state compliance in any way, and have been operating in Broomfield since 2019. The health director, Mr Vahling, answered that the Boulder AIR data have been useful for advocacy purposes, in providing solid evidence that the source of their ozone non-compliance comes from Weld County.

Mr Marsh-Holschen next asked a key question: what will they lose, in terms of advocacy, if they lose their Boulder AIR monitors? Dr Weisner stepped up to answer this question, relating that she is part of an Interim Ozone Committee (interim in the sense of being between state legislative sessions), and recently participated in a presentation at the capital. She said that while both Boulder AIR and Ajax monitors measure ozone precursors, that Ajax data are more precise for what phases of O&G operations; and that they would still be “relevant in the rule-making if they no longer had Boulder AIR [data] moving forward.”

The good council member was still concerned about “losing a leverage point” if they discontinued Boulder AIR, given the progress that Broomfield had made with pushing the CDPHE to address the ozone problem; so he asked Dr Weisner directly. She answered, no, she did not think they would lose such a leverage point because the CDPHE is “moving towards the PID systems” that Broomfield has their Ajax monitors, and that they (Broomfield) “have dramatically shifted the landscape” because of this. She assured the council member that because they are part a local government group with Boulder, Erie and Longmont, which all have both Boulder AIR and Ajax monitoring systems, that if Broomfield were to drop their Boulder AIR monitors, they would still play a part with their Ajax monitors and their data.

One last question from Mr Marsh-Holschen was how much did the Boulder AIR system cost? $450,000, answered staff.

Next, council member Deven Shaff asked a new question: what would be the advantages and disadvantages of keeping just the Boulder AIR program, strictly for the purposes of measuring O&G pollution in Broomfield, not for overall community monitoring?

Dr Weisner answered this as well, emphasizing how she and the Broomfield staff had worked closely with CDPHE regarding the siting of Ajax canisters in proximity to the O&G well sites in Broomfield; and that O&G emission events are sporadic — they are unpredictable as to when they occur, or how much pollution they will produce. She also expressed concern about the two ability of the two existing Boulder AIR stations to be able to detect any emission events from them, that the “plume might be too diluted,” and because all the wells being monitored are in production, and therefore less likely to have emission events. For all these reasons, she emphasized, she was afraid that “a Boulder AIR station was going to miss….a plume…because there are only two stationary monitors…”; whereas, Ajax canisters can be “strategically placed…and moved…in case we need to move them.”

Mr Shaff then asked a question, which he alluded to public comment, about the auditing of the data collected by AQ stations: has the audited data Boulder Air been compared to Ajax Analytics? Dr Weisner replied she could not comment on that, because she has no expertise that area. With such a comment, the Council was left in the dark about the auditing of their AQ monitors data; which is as serious an oversight as allowing financial statements to be submitted without being audited by a CPA. This speaks to the new regulatory territory that is being explored here, where the standards for what stands for acceptable data are still being established through trial and error…and, in this case, cries out for standards based on scientific evidence and considered judgement.

(01:13:33) Next, council member Austin Ward spoke up, posing the deep question: if Broomfield dropped its support of Boulder AIR monitors, how would that affect their advocacy position with the CDPHE, considering data about regional VOCs, wildfires, VOCs from cars versus O&G, and other regional air quality questions? It was a rather broad question, which left it open to the respondent how to answer it.

Dr Weisner again stepped up to answer; but as you can see in the video, the public health director, Jason Vahling, stepped into the camera frame, and took up a position behind Dr Weisner, in anticipation of needing to speak up as well.

Dr Weiser’s reply did not address Mr Ward’s question directly. She initially focused on the smoke from wildfires, and how the Boulder AIR stations collected much valuable data about them; but then she shifted to addressing VOCs, and how Boulder AIR “provides redundancies in the system” about measuring them — insinuating that Boulder AIR’s measurements for wildfire smoke and particulates is essentially unnecessary.

Mr Vahling then stressed that they would stay involved in advocacy, adding that Broomfield has a monitor at Rocky Flats. [COMMENT: This is not true; there is no AQ monitoring station in Rocky Flats.] As for informing the public, he referred to the CDPHE ozone alerts tool, which allows individuals to get personal notifications sent via text or email. Therefore, he did not see the need for adding their own ozone alerts using their own monitors, so as not to confuse the public.

[01:27:52] Councilperson Jean Lim spoke next, asking staff about their statement that the state is moving towards PID sensors: were they surprised by this? Because she has heard that “the industry has discredited” these PID sensors. In response, Dr Weisner went into some detail explaining how Ajax measurements work with extrapolation — which was somewhat unclear — but she concluded with the strong statement that for Ajax canisters that are maintained by the state, and if a canister is triggered by an emissions event where a health guideline has been exceeded, then “maybe the state will get to a place…where it be more actionable” — which seemed like a roundabout way of saying that the ECMC might be moving towards unspecified compliance enforcement against well operators who commit pollution violations.

We must imagine this answer was somewhat frustrating to the local Broomfield residents present, who have had to put up with pollution from O&G operations for years.

Ms Lim then brought up a past emissions event on May 23 (2023?) at the Livingston pad, when the operator company, Extraction, had a VOC venting event that lasted for six hours. Consequently, the ECMC filed a violation against Extraction, which is yet pending. Her understanding was that the operator’s sensors (unspecified) failed to capture the event, but that Broomfield’s sensors (again unspecified) did capture it. Her direct question was should they trust that the state’s choice of PID sensors, since there are different types and quality in them? And will the ECMC force the operators to use better sensors?

Dr Weiser answered that operators are required to do “some type of monitoring” because of “Reg 7” (unspecified as to what those are), but she did describe how Ajax Analytics is “working with the state to organize that massive [sic] Reg 7 data.” She notes as well how the state regulators (in the APCD and CDPHE) agree that the data collection methods used by some operators can be of questionable quality and consistency, implying that the rules in Reg 7 about operators use of AQ monitoring need to be strengthened.

There was no mention in this discussion of Boulder AIR monitors at all, which we found quite unfortunate; because this technology has proven itself to be incredibly sensitive. Also, because its data stream can be combined with air stream models, using NOAA wind velocity data, Boulder AIR data can reveal from what direction, and in what amount, a particular pollutant was detected and when. Councilperson Lim did not specify which Broomfield sensors detected the May 23 event, which would have been helpful to know.

Ms Lim pressed on with her questioning, asking if the contract with Ajax Analytical could be renegotiated downwards, since they are not doing as much work this year (2023) as in the previous year (2022). There was about a 90 per cent drop in canisters that were analyzed, noted Ms Lim, and asked the staff if the contract payments should therefore be reduced?

At this point, city manager Hoffman stepped in, who dodged the direct question of cost — if the contractor is doing less work shouldn’t they be paid less? — and launched into a protracted description of how the canisters are arranged gets changed over the different phases of production of well operation….which was hard to understand how this answered the simple and direct question from Councilperson Lim. The only direct answer manager Hoffman gave was that she did not recommend reducing payments to Ajax because, in effect, this data was too important to Broomfield, though her reasoning was, shall we say, somewhat obfuscated.

Ms Lim then reposed her question, saying she was not suggesting the number of canisters be reduced; rather, since they were not being triggered as often, requiring less trips by Ajax to pick them up and have them analyzed, they were doing less work; so why should they be paid the same amount in 2023 if they were doing 90 per cent less work?

Renee Boulliard stepped up to answer this question, noting that the contract is a fixed amount, and recommended not making any changes until the current contract period runs out, and they analyze the data. Ms Boullliard brought up a map of the various AQ monitor sensor locations (both Boulder AIR and Ajax) shown here:

In the graphic above, we believe the two Boulder AIR stations are in red, and that the remaining sensors are all Ajax Analytic canister sensors. The big road running east-west in the middle is the Northwest Parkway, which roughly bisects Broomfield in its middle body, as shown below. Here’s another map that will help to situate the location for the reader:

Ms Lim pressed the staff on yet another loose end, that she is aware that Boulder AIR monitors have detected “yet another” unknown source of pollution that is “a continuing search”…

[01:16:33] This led to an interesting exchange with another staff member, environmental analyst Ryan Rush: