The blazing heat and cars clogging the highways are befouling the Pikes Peak region's oft-celebrated clear mountain air.
The number of ozone alerts issued by the state since June 1 is expected this week to surpass 2003's record 42 alerts with sweltering August still left in what some experts call "ozone season."
"I think it is pretty safe to say we'll eclipse the record," says Ken Lloyd, executive director of the Regional Air Quality Council, the Denver air planning agency tallying the alerts.
Though the alerts themselves don't warrant any regulatory action, the Pikes Peak region is plodding toward a violation of ozone standards that could provoke a federal crackdown.
Nearly each day of July, alerts have warned people to minimize time outside because of heightened risk of respiratory problems, like lung inflammation and difficulty breathing. Those most in danger are young children, the elderly and people with asthma.
"On any given day, there is a real threat to human health," says Vickie Patton, a senior attorney for Environmental Defense, a group concerned about the effects of Front Range ozone.
Rankings at risk?
Not to be confused with the ozone layer in the stratosphere, which protects people from harmful sun rays, ground-level ozone forms when vapors from cars, oil wells, power plants and other sources mix in hot, stagnant sunshine of the kind seen during the heat wave this summer.
The extent of the impact on Coloradans' health is unknown, because neither state nor local officials track ozone-related illnesses.
"However, based on studies [elsewhere], we do know that on high ozone days, there is a rise in respiratory hospitalizations," says Christopher Dann, a spokesman for the state health department's air quality division.
Rich Muzzy, environmental program manager for the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, says the alerts could adversely affect Colorado Springs' image. Last week, the city was declared the No. 1 big city in the nation by Money magazine owing in part to its comparatively clean air.
"Nobody likes a negative stigma associated with their city," he says, adding that such rankings could be in peril in the future if air continues to be a problem.
If the region's ozone hits 85 parts per billion, it could prompt Environmental Protection Agency intervention and cumbersome regulations even a loss of federal highway dollars to restore healthy air.
The federal formula judges a region's ozone level in a complicated equation that averages readings over a three-year period. Based on the current trend, the region, with its quickly rising population and increasingly crowded roads, is on track to violate federal standards within five years.
Yet Dann would not rule out the possibility that a series of ozone spikes well beyond 100 parts per billion later this summer could so affect the city's three-year average that it could be thrown into violation immediately.
"We're close enough to the limits that one summer can affect whether we're in compliance or not," Dann says.
Last week, a sensor in Manitou Springs detected 79 ppb, one of nearly two dozen times sensors in the region broke 70 ppb this year. In the last two years, the sensor has averaged 70 ppb.
In the Denver area, the EPA last year deferred intervention for violations to give officials a chance to cut ozone levels by the end of 2007.
Patton says leaders in Denver waited for regulators to get involved before significantly addressing the problem. Meanwhile, she says, they have avoided seemingly good ideas, such as new vehicle emissions tests that require reductions in ozone and the gases that cause the greenhouse effect.
The current emissions test used in the Pikes Peak region, one of many that nudged the auto industry to build cars that spew less carbon monoxide, expires at year's end.
"We're missing a leadership vision and a commitment to clean air," Patton says.