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Opinion: As legislature debates new rules, vulnerable Coloradans continue to breathe toxic air

Across our state, industrial polluters daily are releasing toxic chemicals including hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen fluoride and benzene into surrounding communities. The science is clear — these dangerous toxins have no place in our neighborhoods.

Yet, toxic emissions have become far too normal for those living in the shadow of industrial facilities. Residents of Commerce City and North Denver, for example, know that it is just a matter of when — not if — the next headline-grabbing accident will occur at Suncor’s Commerce City refinery.

The refinery is one of the state’s largest polluters, emitting more than 800,000 tons of pollutants a year.  

Lizeth Chacón

When a plume of thick yellow industrial emissions engulfed nearby schools last December and forced children to shelter in place, it was several anxious days before families were given any information about what was in the air that they and their children were breathing.

Instead of an explanation, residents were given the offer of a free car wash and a “sorry for your troubles” note. To this day, the public still does not have a full accounting of the incident.

This was hardly the first time the refinery released toxic emissions.  Suncor has been fined $3.7 million for violating the state’s air quality laws since 2010.

Ean Tafoya

Just this January, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported that it was in negotiations with Suncor over more than 100 unmet standards and violations at its Commerce City facility.

Looking beyond the headlines, you will find that Suncor is not alone in polluting Colorado’s air.

Toxic emissions occur across the state — from Evraz Steel in Pueblo to the Tri-State Power Plant in Craig. Most often, it is communities of color or low-income communities that are closest to these emitters and bear the brunt of toxic emissions.

READ: Suncor oil refinery agrees to $9 million settlement with Colorado for air quality violations in Commerce City  

In some cases, toxic emissions are estimated to be 500% greater than the threshold at which they impact public health — but without robust and publicly available monitoring data, we cannot be sure.

For workers and community members, these toxic chemicals can cause frequent nosebleeds, severe headaches, tremors, cancer and even death.

Environmental justice communities deserve better. Along with their partners and their elected officials, they are advancing legislation to regulate emissions of harmful air toxins and to ensure that communities are proactively involved and informed. Several bills have been introduced that would begin to unravel the serious problem of toxic emissions in our state.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

With HB 1265, sponsored by Reps. Adrienne Benavidez and Alex Valdez and Sens. Julie Gonzales and Dominick Moreno, Colorado would ensure that certain facilities monitor toxic emissions, would demand greater transparency by making real-time emissions data readily available to the public, would establish health-based limits on the amount of toxins that facilities may emit, and would require prompt notification and emergency response in surrounding communities when these limits are exceeded.

This bill will be heard by the House Energy & Environment Committee on March 9.

HB-1143, sponsored by Reps. Dominique Jackson and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez and Sen. Faith Winter, would raise the penalties for air and water quality violations so that we can deter future violations and better hold polluters accountable — particularly those who repeatedly and blatantly disregard public health and safety.

Money collected as penalties would be redirected back to surrounding communities for environmental mitigation projects, and communities would have a say in what projects are pursued. This bill has already passed out of its first two committees.

HB-1265 and HB-1143 would put common-sense, long-overdue measures in place that would vastly improve the status quo — particularly for communities and workers that have been historically and disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals.

If passed, these bills would be a critical step forward in addressing the cumulative effects of pollution that threaten people’s health every day across Colorado.

All the residents of our state — no matter where they live, how much money they make or the color of their skin — have the right to breathe clean air. 

Lizeth Chacon is executive director of the Colorado People’s Alliance. Ean Tafoya is co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum.


Updated at 6:30 p.m. on March 8, 2020: This story has been updated to correct the position of Ean Tafoya. He is co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum.