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Natural gas pipeline infrastructure is pictured near Serene Park in the Colliers Hill neighborhood of Erie on Saturday, March 20, 2021. Photo by Andy Colwell, special to The Colorado Sun

Community justice groups and environmental nonprofits are always looking for tools to combat air pollution  they say is created by under-regulated oil and gas producers and other big industrial sources.

The EPA just handed them millions of dollars to buy some new tools for Colorado. Or at least rent them for a year or two. 

350 Colorado is one of the state groups landing a half-million dollars from the flurry of pre-election grant announcements. The climate change activism nonprofit will use the American Rescue Plan and Inflation Reduction Act money to contract with scientists at Boulder AIR for a mobile monitor of air pollution from oil and gas sites in northern Colorado. 

It’s likely the mobile van will be parked right where 350 Colorado’ northern representative Patricia Garcia-Nelson has been fighting for years, at Bella Romero Academy 4-8 in Greeley, where she’s mom to a student.

For a while, the state monitored claims by Garcia-Nelson and others that nearby fracking operations poisoned the air. But the state eventually moved on without action, and 350 Colorado wants a way to monitor local air and provide results to regulators and the public. 

“The burden has been put on citizens to do the air monitoring that our elected officials in the state refuse to do,” Garcia-Nelson said. 

Environmental groups and Boulder AIR founder Detlev Helmig say past monitoring averages out pollution and misses sharp spikes in dangerous irritants like benzene. Their data will also be instantly and continually available to the public, as it is now for sites like Cultivando’s monitoring of Suncor Energy in Commerce City.

Oil and gas industry representatives said they had no comment about the new round of grants, but pointed to a series of monitoring and leak-repair regulations passed in Colorado in recent years that they say are addressing many of the groups’ concerns. Twenty-seven operators submitted 107 monitoring plans in the first year of the new regulations, as presented by state air pollution regulators to the Air Quality Control Commission in February, the American Petroleum Institute Colorado noted.

A host of successful applicants to the Environmental Protection Agency think that’s not nearly enough to protect public health. 

Here’s a rundown of the Colorado groups and agencies with new air monitoring money, in addition to 350 Colorado: 

  • Cultivando, a Latino organization for health equity in Adams County, is getting $500,000 to continue monitoring airborne toxins where the nonprofit works in Commerce City, Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, all neighborhoods heavily impacted by emissions from the Suncor Energy oil and gas refinery. The grant will also expand mobile monitoring, with an emphasis on lower income and minority residents disproportionately impacted by pollution.
  • Black Parents United Foundation won $472,656 for installation and operation of monitors for ozone, particulates and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, for disproportionately impacted communities in Aurora, “with data transmitted in real-time to a public-facing web portal,” according to the EPA release.
  • San Juan Basin Public Health has $312,500 to monitor VOCs, ozone and particulate in underserved neighborhoods in Archuleta, La Plata and San Juan counties. The grant includes a new program for “community checkout” mobile particulate sensors residents can use in their neighborhoods.
  • The city of Fort Collins will use $499,139 to monitor VOCs and air toxins VOC and air toxins at locations near oil and gas development in Larimer and western Weld counties.
  • Jefferson County now has $225,954 for partnerships for air monitoring in underserved communities, and data will be shared through a public-facing dashboard.
  • Tri-County Health Department won $403,996 for expansion of a community air monitoring network consisting of particulate matter sensors that display real-time, public facing data across Adams and Arapahoe counties.

350 Colorado representatives say residents have a right to know far more about daily air quality in Weld County, by far the largest oil- and gas-producing region in the state with tens of thousands of wells.

“Families from Bella Rivera have been asking for continuous air monitoring for years, but that hasn’t happened yet,” Garcia-Nelson said. “So I feel like it’s an opportunity for their community members to really take control of protecting our children, because at the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Cultivando and Black Parents United Foundation will also contract with Helmig’s Boulder Atmosphere Innovation Research (AIR) firm to carry out the monitoring. Continuous monitoring with high resolution from the best instruments is key to the work, Helmig said, whether groups are more interested in local public health threats or climate change gases. 

“Unless you’re up there looking all the time and can follow these very abrupt and sudden changes in concentrations” from oil and gas sites, Helmig said, “you very likely will miss a lot of the pollution events that characterize the exposure.”

The other thing the grant contracts do that may be different from monitoring done by the state or industry, Helmig said, is providing results nearly instantaneously so parents or community groups can act on the information. 

“What we’ve learned over the years working on the Front Range is that most of the exposure to pollutants is contained in the frequent occurrence of pollution spikes,” he said. With more established monitoring in multiple areas, Helmig said, “citizens, students, school staff, regulators, industry can watch the current conditions in real time and respond to potentially concerning conditions.”

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: booth@coloradosun.com Twitter: