Steamboat Springs A decade-long effort to clean up the air in the Yampa Valley and Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Area was recognized Tuesday.
Local, state and federal officials involved in improving and protecting air quality in the region received the federal Environmental Achievement Award.
The award represents the highest honor given by the Environmental Protection Agency to people who have worked alongside the EPA and industry to significantly improve the environment.
Mike Zopf, director of the Routt County Environmental Health Department, was part of a collaborative team that received the award. Margie Perkins, Dan Ely and Julie Wrend of the state's Air Pollution Control Division, attorney Reed Zars, and Dennis Haddow of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were also honored.
Each of the recipients played a critical role in improving poor visibility in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Area. Their efforts have reduced air pollution that threatened the wilderness area by approximately 25,000 tons a year.
A 1993 Sierra Club investigation of the power plants in Hayden and Craig found the plants were not meeting minimum requirements of the Clean Air Act. The U.S. Forest Service confirmed that emissions from both plants were likely causing poor visibility in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Area.
"Wilderness is a protected resource," Zopf said. "Once it was determined that we did in fact have a visible impairment, this set the ball in motion."
Zars filed the lawsuit against the Hayden and Craig power plants for the Sierra Club. The federal court in 1995 found the Hayden plant liable for more than 18,000 air pollution violations. State-of-the-art pollution control equipment was installed at the Hayden plant to reduce emissions. The Craig power plant must take similar measures by 2004.
"It's a win-win situation for the people of the Yampa Valley," EPA representative Larry Svoboda said.
Residents and visitors to the area enjoy quality air, and upgrades to the power plants ensure their future viability, he said.
The people of Routt County deserve some credit for attending countless meetings about the issue, said Ben Beall, a former county commissioner who took a large interest in finding a solution.
"I always felt positive that through the research and through the science, it would show that there was a way to clean up the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness," Beall said "It was pretty obvious that there was some impact from the Hayden and Craig power plants."
Award recipients agreed the path to clean air was a long one, but one that was worth the effort.
The successful collaboration of local, state and federal entities to improve air quality in the Yampa Valley and Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Area serves as a model to other communities, Svoboda said.
"I'm proud to have been a part of it," Zopf said.