Suncor Energy's Commerce City refinery. Sept. 11, 2020. (Lucy Haggard, The Colorado Sun)

Every day, I see damage from the Suncor gas and diesel refinery right here in Commerce City, just outside of Denver. The refinery is one of the state’s largest polluters, releasing more than 800,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants yearly.

Asthma rates in my community are above the national average – in fact, I myself suffer from asthma, as does my son. Because of our chronic respiratory problems and poor air quality, we are at greater risk of having severe consequences from COVID-19; the virus directly impacts respiratory health and those with weakened systems face a greater risk of death. 

Sadly, the people I know that have died from COVID have had chronic conditions and lived in areas where the air quality is poor. 

Darci Martinez

Since Inauguration Day, the Biden-Harris administration has shown a swift commitment to taking on the climate and public health injustices that communities like mine are facing. This includes a pause on all new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters, a necessary step by this administration to fight the climate crisis. 

They are also a critical lever for mitigating the impact of COVID-19, especially in places like Commerce City that suffer from a disproportionately high rate of respiratory problems and premature births, caused by proximity to fossil fuel development sites. 

Health care professionals like myself and others are too familiar with these issues. That is why in January I spoke out with fellow nurses to urge the Biden administration to take on environmental racism and injustices as our nation continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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The Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, of which I am a member, also released a report that found that oil and gas production has a role to play in making COVID-19 more deadly for communities of color. 

Climate change, however, cannot be extracted from the equation, as coronavirus and the changing climate are intrinsically linked and oil and gas developments are only fueling the climate crisis. 

Latino communities across the United States have already experienced disproportionate health and economic impacts of poor air, water, and soil quality, extreme heat, wildfires, drought, and other severe effects of climate change. 

Where I live in Colorado, the wildfires in 2020 made air pollution even worse. During those times, pediatric visits to my hospital increased, especially by families who can’t afford their child’s asthma medicine. These health impacts will continue to mount as the global temperature rises. 

While President Biden has already taken steps to address the impacts of these crises on communities of color, this is only the beginning if we are to beat the cycle of fossil fuel production. We need leaders across all federal agencies to elevate these injustices, and there is no one more ready for the job than U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, who has been nominated by President Biden to serve as Secretary of the Interior. 

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Haaland would be the first Indigenous Cabinet secretary in our nation’s history. Her confirmation would ensure that all communities – including those most impacted by the climate and COVID-19 crises – would have a seat at the table when it comes to policymaking and charting a course on climate action. 

As she testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on February 23, she demonstrated true expertise and leadership, which is why getting her nomination approved must be a top priority for Colorado’s senators, Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper. 

If we are to dramatically improve public health and uplift marginalized communities while reducing the threat of climate change, then we need leaders like Haaland in the Biden administration. The Senate must approve her nomination and immediately get to work with President Biden to take climate action. Communities like ours counting on them do so. 

Darci Martinez is a family nurse practitioner in Commerce City and is a member of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. 

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