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Suncor Energy’s Commerce City refinery is one of a handful of Colorado businesses targeted by special environmental legislation of toxic emissions. Three of the companies -- Goodrich Carbon, Sinclair and Phillips 66 -- have edited their emissions reports to get out of the rules. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Advocates and lawmakers wary of Colorado companies’ toxic emissions and disclosures to the public won an early victory Thursday when a state House committee approved new fenceline and neighborhood air monitoring of the targeted businesses.

The House Energy & Environment Committee approved House Bill 1189 by an 8-to-5 vote after long hours of testimony, including from neighbors of heavy industry who said it’s long past time they learn what they’ve been breathing and how dangerous their air is.

Sponsors and supporters expanded the bill’s language covering four targeted toxic emitters, after a Colorado Sun story showed some of them self-revising their emission totals downward to avoid thresholds set in the proposed bill and a previously passed law. The amended bill removes specific pound totals of toxics as thresholds to trigger real-time monitoring of emissions that companies must perform at their property boundary, instead saying all companies meeting carefully targeted industrial descriptions must comply. As written, the descriptions still cover only four industrial toxic sources in Colorado.

The new monitoring bill, which also requires real-time disclosure of results to researchers and the public, now goes on to the House Finance Committee. The bill is meant to complete toxic emissions work started in the 2020 session with the passage of House Bill 1265, which required the targeted companies to alert surrounding neighborhoods when a spike in toxic emissions has just occurred. Supporters dropped the constant, real-time fenceline monitoring provision of the 2020 bill when the pandemic shortened the legislative session and cut into enforcement revenue. 

“This bill is so important to our community,” said sponsor Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Adams County, testifying to the committee in support of 1189. Benavidez said her constituents have suffered from respiratory problems and cancer  for decades that they attribute to toxic emitters like the Suncor refinery, and the Phillips 66 and Sinclair petroleum distribution terminals. 

“They know they have to get a handle on what is causing these health problems,” Benavidez said. 

Sponsors said they have narrowed the list of toxins subject to the bill in order to simplify compliance, but they also amended language to prevent companies from revising their numbers in order to avoid reporting. 

“We later found out, those levels of emissions are self-reported; and they are changing their reports,” Benavidez said.

Suncor, one of the largest Colorado emitters in many categories of an EPA registry, said at the hearing that it is implementing a number of monitoring and control measures, and supported “the objectives of the bill.” 

Others testifying on behalf of the industries or trade associations said the bill confuses monitoring for state permitting requirements with monitoring of substances listed in the federal EPA databases, and should be amended to clear up the confusion. 

The 2020 law and the proposed 2021 bill originally set emission thresholds to target four companies that have historically exceeded the targets: Suncor, Phillips 66, Sinclair, and the Goodrich Carbon aerospace parts manufacturing plant in Pueblo. All of those companies except Suncor recently revised their self-reported EPA numbers downward, including in the highly toxic substance benzene, and told state regulators they would no longer be subject to the monitoring laws. 

The bill moving on in the House now identifies specific industry categories that are subject to the monitoring, instead of setting annual-release thresholds in total pounds. 

Michael Booth is the Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of the Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He is co-author with Jennifer Brown of the Colorado Book Award-winning food safety investigation “Eating Dangerously.” Booth was part of teams that won two Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news. He also writes frequently about inexplicable obsessions that include tamarisk, black-footed ferrets and tire fires. Booth also serves as the underpaid driver for four children, and plans to eventually hike every inch of Colorado.