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Whistleblowers ask AG to expand probe into Colorado air pollution division

A broader roster of in-house complainants wants the investigation widened to include allegations about power plant and gold mine permits issued by state

Xcel Energy’s Comanche Generating Station, shown here in a March 5, 2020, photo, is the largest power plant in Colorado. The steam-driven, coal-fueled plant, located in Pueblo, generates 1,410 megawatts of power. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Attorneys for the whistleblowing state air pollution division employees late Friday asked the Colorado Attorney General’s Office to broadly expand the scope of its previously announced investigation into the state health department’s handling of numerous industry permits. 

The whistleblowers currently or formerly employed by the Air Pollution Control Division, who have grown from three to five since the complaint first went public March 30, want the AG’s investigation to include new allegations about the state’s handling of multiple coal-fired power plants and Newmont Mining’s Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mine in Teller County. 

The whistleblowers claim the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment “has not only done a disservice to Colorado’s public, but has unnecessarily endangered their health and wellbeing by exposing them to high levels of air pollution that could and should have been prevented,” according to their attorneys at the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. 

The original whistleblower action asked the EPA’s Office of Inspector General to investigate their allegations that air pollution supervisors unlawfully told pollution modelers to ignore federal law in drawing up industry permits, and also demanded the use of bad data to get permits to fit under EPA emission limits. CDPHE says it asked Attorney General Phil Weiser to launch a state probe of those claims; environmental and social justice groups also petitioned Weiser for an investigation. 

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The new whistleblower claims say state pollution control officials:

  • Ordered staff not to disclose technical analyses to the EPA that staff claimed showed meteorological data used to model permits at the Comanche, Hayden and Craig power stations did not meet federal guidelines.
  • Misled the EPA with “false interpretations of data” on modeling of one-hour pollution emissions at Pawnee and Drake power plants, in order to get results to comply with federal limits. 
  • Engaged “in preferential treatment and non-public arrangements with some permit applicants,” including Cherokee Power Station.
  • Engaged in “environmental racism towards the residents of Commerce City” by not complying with certain Clean Air Act requirements on a permit for Cherokee, which is in Adams County. 
  • Engaged in “wrongdoing” in approving permits for the Cripple Creek & Victor mine, one of the largest gold mines in the Western Hemisphere, by approving “substandard” pollution monitoring methodologies not approved by the EPA.

The attorneys, Chandra Rosenthal and Kevin Bell, said they included substantial documentation of the employees’ and former employees’ accusations in their filing with the attorney general. 

After the AG’s investigation request was first made, state officials said they would cooperate but also said they are confident they have been following all EPA laws in their pollution permitting process.

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office said they would have no comment Friday. 

In a statement Friday evening, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said, “CDPHE asked for the investigation, and the investigators will have everything they need to conduct their work.”  

UPDATE: This story was updated at 7:10 p.m. on May 7, 2021, to include additional comments.

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