This past legislative session was momentous for environmental justice and clean energy in Colorado. That success was due to a bold coalition of empowered people partnered with brave legislators who fought to improve life in communities — particularly communities of color — that disproportionately bear the impacts of environmental and health harms.
Throughout the session, the forefront issue on a number of bills — relating to transportation, climate change, air quality, and many others — was environmental justice. Environmental justice recognizes that all people have a right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, participate freely in decision-making processes, and experience equitable protection of environmental policies.
People in disproportionately impacted communities — places such as the North Denver neighborhoods Elyria-Swansea and Globeville that are in the shadow of the Suncor refinery and Excel Energy’s gas-fed Cherokee power plant — have had to live with unhealthy air from toxic emissions from industrial operations, from endless diesel truck traffic serving multiple petroleum product terminals, and from highway expansions that supercharge harmful pollution.
This year, the message was clear: We need to stop harm, mitigate past injustices, and prevent future adverse impacts. Much progress was made, despite many obstacles and a few compromises. The people prevailed, time after time, thanks to the tenacity and courage of legislators who worked to advance environmental equity.
House Bill 1189 will require four facilities in Colorado — two petroleum terminals and the Suncor refinery in North Denver, and the Goodrich Carbon plant in Pueblo — to install fenceline monitoring systems that can measure dangerous air toxins in real time, to promptly make data available to the public, and to notify communities when spikes in toxic pollution occur.
Senate Bill 260 was amended to create a new environmental justice and equity branch within the Department of Transportation to work with disproportionately impacted communities during the development of transportation projects, while also devoting significant resources to public transportation, air monitoring, pedestrian improvements, and efforts to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles.
The keystone was almost certainly House Bill 1266, the Environmental Justice Act. Originally it was designed to identify disproportionately impacted communities and to create an environmental justice task force.
Similar measures in a separate bill had prompted a veto threat by Gov. Jared Polis. It was the grassroots demand for environmental justice that brought Polis back to the table and kept him there, and that led to the addition of even more robust provisions in HB 1266 to advance environmental justice, including a new requirement that money collected as air quality penalties be returned to the very communities where violations have occurred.
Gov. Polis is trying to take a victory lap, but it was the people who triumphed. An 11-city tour by our coalition across the state after his veto threat fired up the people both in urban and rural areas.
There is something simply magical about the coalition that has come together. The fights we won have demonstrated to everyone in the state that we are stronger together. We are moving forward with momentum. We are lawyered up, we are educated and we are networked. We made tremendous strides this session, even if we didn’t win every fight.
Our victories gave us tools we can use to make even more progress — from robust community-engagement requirements, to the creation of an environmental justice ombudsperson and an Environmental Justice Advisory Board. Moving forward, it will be important for more people to rise up to press for even more progress in the battle for environmental justice. Join us in the streets. Come to hearings. Help grassroots lobbying efforts. Sign petitions.
We all have a right to live in a healthy environment. Those who have lived with injustice for their entire lives have had enough. But we are finding strength together and we are finding important allies who share our goals and our vision of a better, more just and equitable future for all Coloradans.