By Diana Vernazza
Here in Southwest Colorado, the weather is beginning to turn warmer, the rivers are rising and trees slowly leafing out. The first butterflies of the season are looking for nectar, and the birds are noisily building nests. Meanwhile, like most of the country and the world, we are staying at home, sacrificing routines and livelihoods in the hope of slowing the spread of a deadly virus.
It is painful to watch the Covid-19 pandemic unfold: both the physical manifestations of the illness and the economic losses are hard to take in. We can only hope that our communities and bodies will be resilient enough to rebuild. For me, this international health crisis has been a strong reminder of why I support my local environmental organization, the San Juan Citizens Alliance, which fights for the foundations of our community’s resilience: clean air and water, access to public lands, a sense of purpose, and hope for our future.
Early studies show that Covid-19 patients in areas with poorer air quality are more likely to die from the virus. A nationwide study by researchers from Harvard University found that “long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe Covid-19 outcomes.”[i] The study focused on the air pollutant known as PM2.5, which stands for a particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers, or about 1/30th the size of a human hair: they are the very smallest particles studied by public health scientists, and because of the difficulty in detecting them, we have only recently begun to understand their effects. In the United States, our main sources of PM2.5 are vehicle exhaust, petroleum refining, and other combustion of fuels like wood, heating oil and coal.
The study found that an increase of one microgram in a cubic meter of air is associated with a 15 percent increase in the Covid-19 death rate. That’s the equivalent of adding the weight of one millionth of a paperclip into the volume of a large home propane tank. These fine particles pass easily from your lungs into the blood, and contribute to asthma, cardiovascular disease, and even diabetes. But more urgently, and more bluntly, each microgram raises your chance of dying—not only shortening your lifespan, but dying now, during this pandemic. And because these risks are shared by everyone who breathes the air around you, this means an immediate elevated risks for entire communities: neighbors, family, and friends living in an area of poor air quality are all more likely to die.
It’s a stark reminder of why we need community-based environmental advocates like the San Juan Citizens Alliance. In our part of the country, PM2.5 are emitted from a cluster of coal-fired power plants: the San Juan Generating Station and the San Juan Mine Complex, and the Four Corners Power Plant and Navajo Mine Complex. SJCA has worked for decades to reduce the pollution from these plants, which were once planned to operate into the middle of this century. Encouragingly, the Public Service Company of New Mexico has committed to closing the San Juan Generating Station by 2022, and just this month the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission officially approved PNM’s request to abandon the San Juan Generating Station.
Regional air pollution is also generated by oil and gas operations, including pipelines and wells. Colorado recently adopted regulations to reduce emissions, including increasing the frequency of leak detection and repair for smaller sources and requiring oil and gas operators with facilities near homes, playgrounds, and other outdoor spaces to conduct leak inspections more often. SJCA and its partners participated in this rulemaking in the hopes of reducing further emissions, but the Harvard study reminds us that these actions are not only adding years to the lives of affected communities, but they also have the potential to lessen the effects of our current public health emergency.
For example, in the greater Chaco region of Northwest New Mexico, where there is a high concentration of wells, residents are getting sicker and experiencing more complications from Covid-19 than the rest of the country.[ii] These numbers remind us that a reduction in air pollution in a community is as meaningful as a stockpile of ventilators or 20 more ICU beds.
But not everyone sees the wisdom in this math. The City of Farmington continues to explore options to keep the San Juan Generating Station and mine open. The current proposal to convert the complex into a carbon capture facility is not only economically unrealistic, but would allow for continued air pollution. And in March, several rural counties filed a lawsuit challenging Colorado’s new oil and gas emission regulations, asserting that they should only apply to urban areas.
While it’s true that rural areas are (mostly) blessed with lower levels of air pollution than urban areas, the Harvard study shows that even small reductions in air pollution have meaningful consequences to a community’s resilience. We know that this is the right course of action for the environment and for our children’s health. At this moment when our communities’ resources are stretched ever thinner, we might also think in economic terms. During a pandemic, what would a community would be willing to pay to lower its mortality rate by 15 percent: what price would we put on the lives saved, the grief, the premature loss of talent and wisdom for our towns?
Sadly, and all too predictably, our federal leadership continues to erode our environmental laws even while we deal with this global health crisis.
On March 31st, while most of the country was searching for directions on sewing masks or figuring out how to teach fractions to our children, the Trump administration released an unprecedented rollback of fuel efficiency standards. The plan gets a 3 out of 3 in terms of poor public policy: it costs consumers more, kills them earlier, and warms the planet for their children. According to an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund, drivers will use 142 billion additional gallons of gasoline and emit as much as 1.5 billion more tons of pollutants over the next twenty years under the Trump plan, while the particulate matter produced from the refining of that additional gasoline will lead to an estimated 18,500 premature deaths—nearly a thousand each year. Almost comically, at a time when Americans have agreed to take drastic collective measures to save lives, the Trump administration wants us to remember that they are trying to save the fossil fuel industry.
It’s enough to make you take a hike, or a ride, or just sit by the river and take some deep breaths. Luckily we have many options here. We wave to our friends on the other side of the trail, we shout to a family on a raft. If anything, the pandemic has reminded us of the importance of our local public lands, giving us much needed opportunities for socially distant recreation.
And, while we may need to scale back our objectives in the backcountry and stagger our use of the trailheads, I’m grateful to have these open spaces and that SJCA has been tirelessly advocating for their preservation and responsible management for the last 44 years. These resources—clean air and water, protected open spaces—are essential components of our community’s ability to recover from this crisis, and I take hope in knowing that the staff at SJCA are continuing their advocacy today from living rooms and kitchen tables. We might be isolated, but we aren’t alone: stay safe, stay sane, and support SJCA!
 Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States. Xiao Wu, Rachel C. Nethery, Benjamin M. Sabath, Danielle Braun, Francesca Dominici. medRxiv 2020.04.05.20054502; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.04.05.20054502
 For Greater Chaco communities, air pollution compounds COVID-19 threat. Kendra Chamberlain: https://nmpoliticalreport.com/2020/04/15/for-greater-chaco-communities-air-pollution-compounds-covid-19-threat/
Diana Vernazza is an SJCA Board member and a practicing attorney in Durango.