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Mile High City reaches clean-air milestone

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DENVER — Once known as one of the most polluted urban areas for its persistent brown haze, Denver is about to become the first major city to achieve full compliance with the Clean Air Act by eliminating severe air pollution.

The new designation for attaining federal air quality standards, which is expected to be made official this fall, means that the levels of pollutants in the metropolitan area, while sometimes still visible, have remained within prescribed safe limits for human health for more than three years.

"We're not saying it's pristine," said Dick Long, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's regional air quality office here. "But the air now meets federal standards."

Nearly all the biggest cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and Dallas, are falling short of federal standards for ozone pollution, a visible and primary ingredient of smog. In addition, at least five metropolitan areas are failing to meet air quality standards for three pollutants or more — New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix, Pittsburgh and El Paso.

But the Denver area became the first urban region with poor air quality to return to acceptable standards for the six most important pollutants the environmental agency monitors — ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, lead and particulate matter, which is better known as soot. That was enough for the agency to promise to move Denver off the list of "nonattainment" areas, as soon as the paperwork is completed.

The change also safeguards federal transportation money, which regions that are not in compliance often lose.

"For us, it's a huge matter of pride," said Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado, a Republican, who credited work by officials over the last 20 years for the change. "Our pride was injured by those awful pictures of a Denver skyline obscured by smog."

The reduction in pollution is impressive, officials here say, because the Denver area has become one of the fastest growing regions in the country over the last decade. The growing population has spurred many changes that have led to cleaner air, they say, including new state emission standards for vehicles, limits on wood-burning fireplaces and car-pool lanes. Officials hope that a major expansion of Denver's light-rail system this fall, will also help.

Colorado was the first state to alter gasoline to hold down carbon monoxide emissions, and the local power company, Xcel Energy, volunteered to phase out an old coal-fired plant and convert several others to cleaner burning natural gas, a change that has increased electricity costs to local consumers.

Environmental groups contend that while the gains are important, the accelerating growth rate could quickly throw the region out of compliance again.

"It's always a good sign that we're making progress on air quality issues," said John Nielsen, senior policy adviser for the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, an advocacy group. "The challenge is, can we continue, given the growth we've seen in the West."

Environmentalists also expressed concern over the impact of several power plants scheduled for construction along the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

By law, new emissions cannot contribute so many pollutants that they push the region back out of compliance. But even with strict regulations governing output, added pollution from new plants could force state and local governments to impose even stricter guidelines on older sources of pollution.

"The question here is whether we'll be able to bring down emission levels in other areas to accommodate them," Nielsen said.