STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We're also covering this story. The Environmental Protection Agency wants to reduce smog. It released tougher standards for ozone, which comes out of your car power plants, oil and gas development and other places. People with asthma especially suffer. Now, if the EPA plan works, it could make parts of this country a little more like Denver, which is considered a success story in reducing ozone. Dan Boyce of member station KUNC reports on what Denver did.
DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: Air quality has been a concern in Colorado for decades.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thousands of pounds of air pollution could be spewed into the atmosphere every day.
BOYCE: This is a 1982 documentary from Denver public television station KMRA.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Some say the Clean Air Act should be strengthened to protect western Colorado and other clean areas from a brown cloud.
BOYCE: Brown cloud wasn't hyperbole. It was a literal thing. The mile-high city was famous for it, especially on hot summer days. Major amendments to the Clean Air Act over the past few decades have given the federal government much greater authority to regulate air pollutants like ozone. It's done on the basis of air monitoring.
TYLER SVITAK: So this is one of several ozone pollution monitoring sites around the Denver metro area.
BOYCE: Tyler Svitak of the American Lung Association's Colorado chapter meets me at a small, one-story brick building near the heart of downtown. Stations like this can be found all over the country in high-ozone areas. Data from these sites help gauge the effectiveness of ozone control measures, like requiring cleaner gasoline and scrubbers on power plants. And Denver has made major progress.
SVITAK: You know, our brown cloud has significantly gotten better, but our science has gotten better, too. And science is telling us that the regulations aren't where they need to be yet.
BOYCE: Svitak and the EPA say it's science leading the Obama administration's push to lower the acceptable ozone threshold for the first time since 2008. But like with so many arguments over regulation, it comes down to economics.
SVITAK: Missing days of school, missing days of work.
BOYCE: Svitak says the costs of higher ozone levels are clear. Less healthy people more of the time. Democratic state Sen. Cheri Jahn is a lifelong Coloradan who witnessed the brown cloud of the '70s and '80s. She cares about clean air, but she thinks the new threshold is too strict.
CHERI JAHN: You know what it almost feels like? They are setting us up to fail.
BOYCE: Despite serious effort, the state's highly populated Front Range is still not meeting the 2008 ozone standards. Federal transportation dollars and other funding can be at risk for areas not in compliance.
JAHN: We can't afford to lose one dollar because we already don't get enough.
BOYCE: Just outside Jahn's office, construction workers are pouring concrete as part of a road project. Forbes ranks Denver one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and traffic can be a total mess. But road construction in high ozone areas must go through heightened scrutiny. The Associated General Contractors of America is a construction industry trade group. Spokesman Brian Turmail says a stricter ozone standard will just mean more red tape bogging down more road projects in more areas of the country.
BRIAN TURMAIL: The last thing you want if you're trying to protect the air quality is to force even more commuters to spend even more time idling their vehicles while they're stuck in traffic.
BOYCE: Nationally, ozone levels fell more than 30 percent from 1980 to last year. The EPA predicts the new standards will cost billions. But the agency says savings in health benefits will far outweigh that. For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce in Denver.
INSKEEP: That report comes from Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focusing on America's energy issues.
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