Denver — A recent cartoon in the Rocky Mountain News shows two figures silhouetted against a murky background. "How high is Denver?" asks the first. "About 5,000 feet above SEE level," the second replies.
This graphically illustrates the stake that Denver and a number of other high-elevation cities in the West have in an ongoing debate over relaxation of auto-emission standards specifically designed to reduce the serious air pollution problems faced by cities at several thousand feet altitude.
The case of high-altitude emissions standards is a classic environmental conundrum. Autos driven in areas several thousand feet about sea level spew out substantially more toxic fumes -- particularly carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide -- than the same autos driven at sea level. In the thin air, gasoline does not burn as completely. As a result, residents of Denver and Salt Lake City have seen their pristine air deteriorate with startling rapidity, largely due to the internal combustion engine.
In Denver, now the city with the worst air outside Los Angeles, "It is a matter of health, not aesthetics," says Colorado's pro-environment governor, Richard D. Lamm. The state's Air Pollution Control Division has documented a number of pollution-related health effects, including an increase in the number of deaths among those with respiratory problems on particularly smoggy days.
Yet only about 3 percent of the total US population lives at high altitudes. For years, Detroit's automakers have been unwilling to specially tune their cars for high altitude, and the original air emissions standards were all set at sea level. Only California with its massive market has been able to enact special air emissions requirements.
Finally, Congress passed a requirement that all cars substantially reduce their carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emission levels by 1984. Now the automakers, the powerful United Automobile Workers, and even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are backing a relaxation of these standards.
Automakers argue that killing this and a number of other Clean Air Act regulations is necessary for their economic recovery and that cleaning up the air in Denver and Salt Lake City may cost jobs in the Northeast. Also, they argue that it is not fair for the 97 percent of the auto owners who live in the lowlands to pay the extra $25 to $100 it will cost to benefit the high-country folks. In congresssional testimony last week, Charles Gray of the EPA testified that the easing of emission standards will not stand in the way of cleaning up the nation's air, at least most of it. When confronted with a copy of an EPA study which concluded that, if worse comes to worst, such a relaxation would keep 16 to 20 areas from achieving 1987 clean-air standards, he acknowledged the fact, but argued that under more favorable assumptions only four or five areas would be in noncompliance by 1990.
EPA insiders look at reports like this judiciously. "For years we've come up with studies which miraculously conclude that the nation's air is going to attain the ambient standards by 1987. I've never put much faith in them," says one agency expert.
In Denver, at least, state air-pollution experts believe that elimination of the more stringent controls on carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide will make it impossible to clean up its air in this century.