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Colorado neighborhoods will get tougher toxic air monitoring of heavy polluters

House Bill 1189 passed this week with a push from community advocates and conservation groups seeking more real-time, publicly disclosed tracking of dangerous pollutants like benzene.

The Suncor refinery in Commerce City is pictured on Sand Creek from along the Sand Creek Regional Greenway on May 26, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Dangerous releases of toxic air by some of Colorado’s heaviest air polluters will get greater scrutiny after the legislature passed a bill requiring “fenceline” monitoring and expanded mobile testing by the state, according to activists hailing the proposal. 

The legislature gave final approval this week to House Bill 1189 — and sent it on for the governor’s signature — requiring industrial plants like Suncor’s Commerce City refinery and the Goodrich Carbon airplane brakes plant in Pueblo to set up monitoring at the border of their properties. They must also publicly report results. 

Supporters of the bill, which include Latino legislators from north Denver and the suburbs making a push for environmental justice, also managed to remove an escape hatch for some companies. Conservation groups accused companies like Goodrich Carbon of arbitrarily altering their self-reported toxic emissions in recent years to bring pollution levels below thresholds proposed in early versions of House Bill 1189. 

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The companies denied they were trying to avoid the thresholds, saying they had merely installed better equipment or improved monitoring to make emission totals more precise. In response, supporters changed the bill’s language to require reporting for specific, carefully targeted industries, no matter what amount of the chemicals they release. 

Advocates for the bill are still trying to limit three primary toxic chemicals: hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide and benzene. But the definitions of what polluters were covered changed to the industries that emit the highest amounts of those substances: petroleum refineries, makers of aircraft parts, and petroleum bulk stations and terminals. 

The Colorado Sun sought comments from Suncor and Goodrich Carbon, but did not hear back before deadline.

Carmen Abrego Vasquez, a Globeville resident who is a member of the nonprofit Colorado People’s Alliance, said through a translator that her whole family has suffered from respiratory issues from neighborhood pollutants.

She called the bill “an important step to making sure we have transparency and hold corporate polluters accountable . . . The majority of people who live in my community are Latinos or immigrants and this is a step to improve our lives. We have a right to know what’s in the air we breathe.”

Renee Chacon, a Commerce City resident and youth program development coordinator at the nonprofit Spirit of the Sun, said the bill represents some real progress, but should also serve notice to industry for the future. 

Vigilance is crucial, Chacon said, “because we don’t want new sectors coming in, and acting in the same predatory way towards these disproportionately impacted communities.” She wants regulators to follow up on House Bill 1189 with meaningful sanctions for companies like Suncor whose toxic releases periodically blow past permit limits and other rules. 

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“Air monitoring is a critical first step towards accountability for neighborhood polluters and we are proud of the legislators who listened to their communities and championed this bill to begin to address decades of environmental racism,” said Jenny Gaeng, Conservation Colorado’s transportation advocate. “However, Colorado still hasn’t done enough to reduce pollution in the communities it hurts most – so the fight for environmental justice will continue.”

The bill, which Gov. Jared Polis is expected to sign, also requires the state Air Pollution Control Division to set reporting thresholds for the companies that must install fence line monitors under the law. Any facility that exceeds the thresholds would be required to report the incident to the public. 

“This was huge for environmental justice,” said Ean Tafoya, co-chair of Colorado Latino Forum. Tafoya also cited gains advocates feel they made through House Bill 1266, which puts many of Polis’ greenhouse gas emissions goals on a stricter timeline. 

Not all conservation groups, which have been in battles with state regulators for months about renewing Suncor’s expired emissions permits and other issues, see the new bill as a major change. They have accused air pollution control staff, and the appointed commission that writes regulations, of being too close to industrial polluters and of going easy on them. 

“The legislature continuing to expect protection from the Air Quality Control Commission, when the Commission has members who work or worked for polluters, is unrealistic,” said Robert Ukeiley, Colorado counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The bill “has some minor value,” Ukeiley said, but other states such as Texas, North Carolina and Georgia have set tougher limits.


CORRECTION: This story was updated June 9, 2021, at 10:25 a.m to correctly describe Carmen Abrego Vasquez’s work with the Colorado People’s Alliance. She is a member of the group.


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