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An Ajax Analytics air monitoring station is pictured on a utility pole along the 15000 block of Lipan Street in Adams County as part of a program to track air quality in areas near oil and gas operations. The air sampler is one of 19 operating in Broomfield and Adams counties as part of a cooperative program of the City and County of Broomfield, Ajax Analytics, Colorado State University, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. It was photographed Thursday, April 4, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado would create five new air toxin monitoring stations around the state, set health-hazard levels for dozens of airborne chemicals, and start ratcheting back those industrial emissions under a bill environmental justice groups call one of their top priorities this year.

Sponsors and advocacy groups say the EPA and state health officials rely on “best available technology” at industrial sites to limit emissions without knowing whether what’s actually in ambient air will harm Coloradans’ health. They say that while progress has been made on ozone and greenhouse gas pollutants, air pollution that’s toxic at the personal, neighborhood level is largely unknown and unregulated. 

“It’s a fairly major gap. Colorado does not have a comprehensive air toxics program,” said Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, whose district includes a Terumo medical sterilization facility handling potentially toxic levels of ethylene oxide, a cancer risk. “The work we’ve done over the last few years has really zeroed in on a couple of industries. But what we’re now trying to do is take a step back and look at this from a health perspective.”

Kennedy said he has been impressed with controls Terumo has put in, but without the new tracking that would be provided in his bill, to be introduced this week, “we have no way of knowing” whether the company is successfully stopping emissions. 

“We know that these corporations exist and do their business in communities that are mostly communities of color,” said Lizeth Chacon of the Colorado People’s Alliance, a door-to-door education and advocacy group in lower-income communities. “It’s important for us to name that, and address how communities of color are being disproportionately impacted by the toxins that these corporations are putting in the air. Our kids are sick, our families are sick.”

The bill envisions a detailed monitoring period with new strategically placed sites, then limits on future emissions for specific chemicals in rules made by the Air Quality Control Commission. Those standards should be based on health-hazard limits already set by states like California, supporters said.

Colorado passed a law requiring site monitoring of a small handful of industries like the Suncor petroleum refinery in Commerce City and an aerospace materials maker in Pueblo, said Ean Tafoya, Colorado director of GreenLatinos. The new bill would take the next step of setting a health standard and holding companies to it, he said, a process the EPA was meant to do but never completed.

“For years they told us, ‘Oh, we can’t do it because we don’t have the data.’ Well, now we’re going to have the data, let’s keep going,” Tafoya said. On air toxics and soil and water pollution, he said, “we’re coming for more.” 

Advocates do not yet have specific cost estimates for the bill’s requirements. The health department has already made budget requests, supported by Gov. Jared Polis, for dozens of new positions to deepen air pollution review and enforcement. Some of the air toxics bill’s major provisions would not kick in until 2027, Kennedy said, recognizing that air pollution officials already have expanded regulations to carry out. 

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, whose trade members could be affected by monitoring and cracking down on benzene or other emissions associated with drilling and production, declined to comment on the bill, saying it had not had time to analyze a draft. 

American Petroleum Institute Colorado said in a statement, “We are reviewing the draft with an understanding from the bill sponsor that the natural gas and oil industry is not the intended target of the measure. That said, we would encourage any new bill be integrated into EPA’s Air Toxics Assessment and other existing programs, including facility fence-line monitoring and community monitoring,” according to API Colorado Executive Director Lynn Granger.

A spokesperson for Terumo declined to comment on the proposed bill.

Advocates also want to give the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment more power by allowing the state to reopen previously issued emissions permits if the monitoring and new rules show ambient air standards would be violated. It also requires the state to prioritize “facilities in disproportionately impacted communities.” 

The federal Clean Air Act was amended in the 1990s to list a number of toxic industrial chemicals and require companies to use the best available technology to control them, said Rebecca Curry, Colorado policy advocate for Earthjustice, which backs the bill. The EPA never followed through, however, on setting human health standards for each toxic and monitoring and clamping down on real-world releases, she said. 

Meanwhile, other states took up that slack and created limits and consequences for emissions. “Colorado is sort of slipping into a minority of states that have not taken state-level action to address air toxics from a health based perspective,” Curry said. 

The list of potentially hazardous emissions to monitor can reach close to 200 depending on the state and the breadth of regulation. Colorado’s bill is likely to encompass dozens of chemicals, while giving the air quality commission the duty of adding new health standards when necessary. Last year’s site monitoring bill required measurement of chemicals like hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide and benzene. Ethylene oxide is also mentioned frequently by advocates for more monitoring and regulation. 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...