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As traffic rolls along Speer Boulevard in the foreground, the skyline is shrouded as pollution fills the air Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division is falling further behind in writing new or renewal permits limiting the pollutants companies can put into state air, even as state officials lose more court cases declaring them in violation of deadlines and ordering speedier action. 

The state health department’s clean air division had a backlog of 111 air pollution permit applications and renewals as of Nov. 1, state officials said this week, up from 107 backlogged permits on Sept. 1. The state says it is “in transition” to ramping up hiring and bolstering permitting resources after a multimillion-dollar budget increase for pollution control requested by Gov. Jared Polis and approved by the 2022 legislature. 

Environmental groups this month won a summary judgment from the Adams County court on four delayed permit renewals, one dating to 2007 and two dating to 2015. The judge found the air pollution division’s backlog violated the state Air Pollution Prevention and Control Act.

District Court Judge Kyle Seedorf ordered the state to send completed permit renewals to the EPA for review by April for the Wattenberg Gas Processing Plant, the Sinclair Denver Products Terminal and the Phillips 66 Denver Terminal. The order also told state officials to complete a renewal for the East Regional Landfill this year. 

An environmental coalition fighting Colorado’s ozone and greenhouse gas problems has won multiple court judgments on late permits in recent years, and is filing more actions. WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity filed new suits Dec. 6 alleging more failed state deadlines in issuing permits for bulk petroleum terminals and natural gas processing stations on the Front Range. 

“The state’s got a whole fresh load of applications to take action on. In the meantime, there’s sources that have been waiting since 2007 to get an updated permit, so they don’t seem to be rising to the challenge,” said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians. The state has “just let polluters run the roost and systematically it doesn’t seem like things are changing,” he said.

The coalition wants state officials to pause permitting of new sources of air pollution, including new oil and gas production, while it tries to deal with the backlog. 

Air Pollution Control Division spokesperson Leah Schleifer said the state is “evaluating its options” after the Adams County judge’s order. 

“The Air Pollution Control Division is currently in a transition period as we increase staffing and resources  to reduce existing backlogs and work toward eliminating future delays,” Schleifer said. “We’re doing so with the support of the administration and state legislature, including recent funding investments to increase division staffing and technology. Now, more than ever before, air quality is a top priority.”

The state’s comments came as the Air Quality Control Commission met to decide the fate of the division’s state implementation plan for meeting the EPA’s limits on ozone, which is caused by a combination of vehicle emissions, oil and gas production, hot and sunny weather, and Front Range geography. Colorado’s north Front Range, encompassing nine counties, has been judged in “severe” violation of a 2008 EPA ozone standard and in “moderate” under a 2015 standard. 

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The state must file a plan on how to get into compliance, but in earlier presenting the plan to the AQCC, state officials acknowledged their plan would fail to achieve the 2015 standard by 2024. Local elected officials and environmental groups spent days of testimony this week urging the AQCC to drop the state’s plan and require new ozone-limiting measures, such as a pause on oil and gas activity in hot summer months. Late Thursday, the AQCC rejected those calls and approved the ozone plans, which will now be reviewed by the EPA and might be blocked.

In response to the judge’s orders on the long-delayed permits, state officials also said they are taking measures to speed up the permitting process, including moving to electronic submittals, hiring 30 new staff members over two years, and studying other states that process permits faster. 

State officials also point out that companies with backlogged renewals are still operating under the conditions of their initial permits, and that the old permits are enforceable. 

But delaying state action, WildEarth Guardians said, keeps any state reviews or limits out of the public eye. Once a renewal draft is issued, it’s sent to the federal EPA for review and possible revision, Nichols noted. The EPA stepped in on the controversial Suncor refinery permit renewal earlier in 2022 and demanded tougher limits from state regulators. 

“The state doesn’t get it right all the time,” Nichols said. “The judges are all agreeing with us. And we’re finding that when the judges weigh in, it does get the state to move.” 

Michael Booth

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