EPA investigates Colorado for discriminatory air pollution

DENVER (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating whether Colorado’s regulations on air pollution from industrial facilities discriminate against Hispanic residents and other racial minorities, according to a letter published Wednesday.

It’s a level of exam long sought after by Lucy Molina, whose daughter goes to school near Colorado’s only oil refinery. Three years ago, Molina had just driven out when she noticed a layer of ash on her Nissan Altima that wiped onto her fingers. Then she received a message that her daughter’s school was closed and panicked. She later learned that the refinery had malfunctioned, spitting a clay-like material into the air. She had heard of closures for shootings, but never for pollution.

Since then, she has pushed for community air monitoring and stronger protections, but says it all seems too late. She has lived here for 30 years and her children are already young adults.

“If we would have known” years ago, she says. “We would have moved.

Proponents say the Suncor refinery too often malfunctions, increasing emissions. They say Colorado rarely denies permits to polluters, even in areas where harmful ozone already exceeds federal standards.

Federal investigators said in the letter that they would review the state’s monitoring of Colorado’s biggest polluters, including the Suncor oil refinery in North Denver where Molina lives, and whether the effect of that pollution on residents is discriminatory.

Suncor did not respond to a request for comment.

But it’s already harder for oil and gas companies to get their air permits in Colorado than in some other energy-producing states, said John Jacus, chairman of the board of the Colorado Chamber of Commerce and environmental compliance attorney. He said recent allegations that the state’s permit review process was flawed were having the effect of slowing air permits, a blow to business.

« It would be really good for the air quality to shut everything down, but it’s not good for society, » Jacus said, adding there needs to be a balance between environmental protection and business. economic.

The EPA launched its investigation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It has been going on since March but went unnoticed until Wednesday’s letter, which explains its scope. The law allows the EPA to negotiate agreements with states to promote fairness. The Biden administration has tightened its enforcement of environmental discrimination.

Colorado officials said they welcome the EPA review, greater community involvement, and are reviewing their permitting policies to ensure they are focused on the environmental justice.

“We have always prioritized the health and well-being of every Coloradan, regardless of zip code, but we know we have more to do,” said Trisha Oeth, our Director of Health and Wellness. environmental protection in a press release.

But the EPA has sometimes found that these priorities are lacking.

The agency examined the state’s management of Suncor. Colorado’s only oil refinery is about 90 years old and is a major emitter of greenhouse gases in the state.

In March, the EPA objected to a key air permit for the facility that state regulators were still reviewing 10 years after its original expiration date. The agency raised « significant environmental justice concerns » and said the public had not had sufficient opportunity to intervene. The EPA did not object when the state issued a revised permit.

In July, the agency also said the state had issued permits for a mine, oil and gas wells and other small polluters, even though they may contribute to violations of federal quality standards. the air. Colorado said it would improve its exams, but has been reluctant to review its licensing decisions.

There are signs the agency picked Colorado because he might prove a willing partner.

“Colorado has been one of the states that has been a leader in environmental justice in the legislature,” said KC Becker, head of the EPA region that includes Colorado and former legislative leader of the EPA. State.

Colorado has tightened air monitoring requirements. It has increased funding for air license reviews. The state’s greenhouse gas reduction plan aims to reduce pollution in overburdened areas. He has also worked with the EPA to ensure that inspections target the most polluted areas and when companies reach settlements for wrongdoing, they pay for projects that benefit communities.

The EPA might have an easier time convincing Colorado to change than, say, Texas, said Jeremy Nichols, manager of climate and energy programs at WildEarth Guardians.

The Colorado changes « gave the EPA an opening to say, ‘Well, if that’s what you’re committing to, let’s really test this, let’s see you prove your mettle here,' » Nichols said.

Nichols said Colorado was being too industry-friendly. He wants to see the state deny permits much more often.

Ian Coghill, an Earthjustice attorney who is challenging Suncor’s permit, says the back-and-forth between the EPA and the state hasn’t brought major improvements. Suncor’s license revisions, he said, « have not changed much. »

He hopes the civil rights inquiry will compel the state to make changes and detail the cumulative effect of industry pollution on North Denver residents.

« I’m definitely optimistic, » he said.


The Associated Press is supported by the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

Michael Phillis and Brittany Peterson, The Associated Press


Back to top button