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Idling Cop Cars Run Against Aspen's Air Quality Law

Mar 5, 2015

Law enforcement agencies in Aspen have been breaking a law that’s been on the books for 23 years, or at least the spirit of it. As Aspen Public Radio’s Carolyn Sackariason reports, the law is meant to limit pollution.

If you walk by the offices of the Aspen Police or Pitkin County Sheriff on any given night, you might notice the sounds and smells of idling car engines.

Unattended vehicles running, spewing emissions into the air. It could be viewed as a violation of the Aspen Air Quality Ordinance, enacted in 1992 to address the city’s ongoing fight to keep pollution down. And it certainly flies in the face of the city of Aspen’s “Canary Initiative,” which aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

On a recent night, an APD vehicle parked near the department had been running for at least 40 minutes with no officer in sight. When first asked about the police department’s policy on idling, assistant chief Linda Consuegra said officers do not engage in the practice. But when the recent idling incident was cited, police chief Richard Pryor attempted to explain why his officers keep their engines running while they are in the patrol room.

“I suspect if people are leaving their cars idling, it’s most likely because it’s very cold, it’s snowing, they want to keep the vehicle warm, ready to go if they get an emergency call,” Pryor says.

But that Tuesday night, it was around 28 degrees and no snow was falling. And on several nights this relatively mild winter, law enforcement vehicles have been running with their engines on without drivers in them. All of the nights observed were clear and free of snow.

“Hey Carolyn, I have no excuse for that whatsoever except that I think that’s unacceptable … like I said, on the night you describe there’s no reason we should be running our cars.”

That’s Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo. He’s responding to my inquiry as to why one of his deputy’s cars was running with no one in it Friday night, when temperatures were above freezing.

While law enforcement is exempt from the ordinance to allow for quick emergency response times, idling to keep an officer’s patrol car warm and clear isn’t the intent behind the exemption. C.J. Oliver is the director of the city’s environmental health department.

“Especially in the winter time, it needs to be ready to go, frost off of the window, etc. but still it won’t take 40 minutes to make that happen. We certainly try to work with those folks to set a decent example. We certainly don’t want it to be egregious, nor do we want it to look bad in the eye of the public either.”

The city’s air quality ordinance prohibits vehicle engines from idling for more than three minutes. The fine starts at $100, and can be as much as $500 with a mandatory court appearance for habitual offenders.

But citations are few and far between. Oliver’s office has issued under a dozen citations in the last couple of years. Environmental health staffers go out two to four times a month and check specifically for idling vehicles in residential and commercial areas. They typically issue warnings and work to educate people about the law. If they find egregious violators, that’s when a ticket is handed down. Enforcement is also complaint based.

Oliver wasn’t able to give specific numbers on how much idling engines contribute to greenhouse gas emissions but he acknowledged it can be significant, especially in a town where there’s a concerted effort to keep levels of particulate matter down.

“An idling vehicle, well, in essence, is getting zero miles to the gallon and the engine doesn’t run nearly as efficient when a vehicle is idling as it does when it’s actually driving down the street,” Oliver says.

The patrol cars that are idling are SUVs; the sheriff’s office uses Chevys and the police department recently swapped out its hybrid fleet for Fords. Pryor says that’s because the hybrids were not designed for police work and the new “police interceptor” SUVs have better ergonomics.

Both law enforcement agencies are planning to build new facilities, and a covered parking garage will eliminate the need to keep engines idling due to snow or cold temperatures.

“It’s one of those catch 22 situations where, yes, you want to be as environmentally responsible but also we’ve got a job to do and we want to be able to respond appropriately when we need to so it’s kind of a difficult situation,” Pryor says.

The city’s air quality ordinance was before its time in terms of waging a war on eliminating emissions and it does help with today’s goals in the environmental health department. Again, C.J. Oliver.

“If we are successful with reducing idling we certainly are successful with reducing greenhouse gases and that helps the Canary Initiative for sure.”

One day after he was made aware of the practice, DiSalvo sent an email to all of his deputies telling them to stop their engines when they are in their courthouse offices. It’s unknown whether the Aspen Police Department has taken any action. Oliver’s department has been made aware of the issue.