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Advocacy groups force Colorado water quality commission to consider upgrades for urban streams

Citing a growing body of environmental justice rules, neighbors and conservation groups use first-time petition process to demand reversal of a 2020 decision they say slighted city rivers.

The South Platte River is seen near the Clear Creek Trail on Sunday, August 8, 2021 in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)
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The state Water Quality Control Commission reversed itself this week and agreed to consider tougher protections for urban streams, another sign of activists deploying recent environmental justice laws in safeguarding local water, land and air. 

The commission Monday unanimously accepted demands in a petition from a coalition of conservation and advocacy groups that they revisit staff recommendations rejected in 2020 that would have upgraded protections for the South Platte River and Clear Creek. 

The upgrades rejected at a June 2020 commission meeting would have made it harder for industries and other water polluters to get effluent permits in stretches of heavily impacted urban waters that nevertheless show some signs of fish and wildlife recovery. 

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That 2020 decision, and a commissioner’s statement that higher protections were reserved for “pristine mountain waters,” infuriated a coalition of dozens of conservation groups and local governments, from Colorado GreenLatinos to Trout Unlimited to Denver City Council members. They wrote to Gov. Jared Polis ahead of Monday’s meeting arguing that the statewide commission was “prioritizing industrial profits over the safety and well being of residents who have been historically disproportionately affected by pollution.”

Commission staff told the advocacy groups it was the first time in their knowledge of the commission’s history that petitioners had successfully forced such a reversal. The commission staff will now set a schedule for formal reconsideration of the decision in 2022. 

“This is a first for impacted environmental communities,” Colorado GreenLatinos director Ean Tafoya said. He called it  “a huge step forward for our community,” and encouragement to community groups to “use every tool available in our collective pursuit for environmental liberation.” 

Conservation Colorado water advocate Josh Kuhn said the decision confirms that “no river is beyond repair, and state policy should support that fact.

“Revisiting a bad decision that allowed industry to pollute our rivers is the right choice for our waterways and our communities — especially in North Denver where residents have been harmed by pollution for too long,” Kuhn said. “We urge the commission to listen to their own experts and improve protections for Clear Creek and the South Platte River.”

Colorado’s director of environmental health and protection, Shaun McGrath, invoked the justice directives of House Bill 1266 passed earlier this year when recommending the commissioners accept the petition and revisit their 2020 decision. 

“The department has really learned a lot about how to more properly engage environmental justice issues and to ensure that disproportionately impacted communities are considered when we’re proposing or considering rules and policies,” McGrath said. 

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Commissioner Jennifer Bock said it was important for the group to consider the “strong reaction” from community groups and conservationists over the past year and a half. “It is probably not fun to go back and look at these issues again, but I think it’s our responsibility,” she said.  

The reversal is the latest in a series of moves by advocacy groups to cite recent state legislation mandating environmental justice considerations when seeking specific change. And regulators respond that they have studied and feel compelled by the same legislation. 

In November, a coalition of advocacy groups pushed the Air Quality Control Commission to toughen their update of an EPA-required regional haze plan that can force cuts to industrial emissions for cleaner air in national parks and other wilderness sites. State staff had recommended the commission stay on a pre-set schedule of pollution cuts without adding a new layer of haze regulations. 

But the conservation groups pointed to justice legislation in demanding more cuts for the Suncor refinery in Commerce City, which neighbors in north Denver say has long subjected their communities to health problems. The air commissioners agreed, and put more restrictions on Suncor. 

Justice and cultural concerns are also coming into play for Xcel Energy’s plans to criss-cross portions of Colorado with much-needed new transmission lines. Many advocacy groups want the transmission lines in order to link together clean energy farms and provide reliable energy, but the planned routes may also interfere with valuable cultural sites and other environmentally sensitive areas. 

In the urban water decisions, the water quality commission made two choices in 2020 that launched an 18-month effort at reversal by the environmental and advocacy coalition. 

The division staff and many outside government agencies and neighborhood groups wanted stronger protections for the much-maligned streams of Clear Creek, passing the Molson Coors beverage plant, and the South Platte River as it flows out of north Denver and through Commerce City. Advocates for the rivers said plant life and wildlife could make a comeback, and any industrial discharges into the water should face stiffer review. 

Industrial users filed briefs arguing that the streams had little environmental value remaining and that they shouldn’t suffer regulation that would restrict their business. 

Some commissioners on Monday said a debate over reversing their 2020 decisions on Clear Creek and the South Platte should be part of a larger discussion on the so-called “anti-degradation” rules affecting many stream segments. In the end, though, the commissioners decided unanimously to take on the petition’s demands as soon as possible in 2022. 

“Communities have expressed their concern and desire to revisit these issues, and I think that they are ripe for discussion,” Bock said.