Activists Call for Polis to Expand Fight Against Environmental Racism

Suncor is located by a poor residential neighborhood in north Denver.
Suncor is located by a poor residential neighborhood in north Denver. Anthony Camera
As efforts to reform law enforcement gain momentum in Colorado, some groups are renewing their efforts to fight environmental racism.

Along with 34 other nonprofits, 350 Colorado has been pushing a petition that calls for a complete halt of the release of harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other forms of air pollution for thirty days, or at least until the coronavirus pandemic is contained. The effort, which began in April, has gotten a recent boost, with over 2,600 signatures now submitted to Governor Jared Polis.

VOCs are often released right next to residential areas or neighborhoods, at sites like the Suncor Oil Refinery in Commerce City; they're also released at the more than 50,000 active fracking wells in Colorado. Despite a recent drop in drilling in Colorado, thousands of people still face the effects of VOCs from fracking sites, coal plants and refineries. “It’s completely inappropriate to have these types of industrial facilities next to where people are living,” says Julia Williams, director of communications and development for 350 Colorado.

The petition connects the harmful effects of air pollution on vulnerable people to the deadly virus, citing a Harvard research study that found that long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is associated with an 8 percent increase in the COVID-19 death rate. Researchers said their results “underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.”

In April, Polis created the COVID-19 Health Equity Response Team to respond to racial disparities in how the virus affects Colorado communities. One of its goals is to help those who are more likely to live in areas with high air pollution rates, like the communities around the Suncor refinery.

Omar Montgomery, president of the Aurora branch of the NAACP, serves on the Equity Response committee; he stresses that social inequities are directly connected to environmental inequities. “If we can be proactive now in addressing these issues, then we can begin to look at it from a systemic perspective... asking ourselves how we can serve our communities that have been disenfranchised for years,” he says. The committee plans to present Polis with a proposed list of actions.

And voters want more action on the climate from state leaders, according to polling conducted by Conservation Colorado, Western Research Advocates and the Global Strategy Group in May. The survey data and analysis found that even during the current health crisis, Coloradans strongly support moving forward with ambitious moves to mitigate climate change.

Nearly 72 percent of those polled approved of the Climate Action Plan creating emissions reduction targets that Polis signed into law in May 2019, including 51 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of unaffiliated voters. People would actually change their vote based on climate issues, according to the survey, which says that a Democratic candidate who strongly supports climate action beats a Republican candidate who does not by 21 points on a generic legislative ballot.

Andrew Baumann, senior vice president of research at Global Strategy Group, explains that this is the second of two polls exploring Colorado voter attitudes about climate change, and specifically the targets approved last year. The first was conducted in December, before the outbreak of the pandemic; Baumann says the results from both surveys were consistent.

Jessica Goad, deputy director at Conservation Colorado, says she's excited about the polling results. “We need to take action on climate. Climate action equals public health, equals racial justice, and all of these issues together can be unwound,” Goad says.

Governor Jared Polis signed Colorado's Climate Action Plan in May 2019. - CHASE WOODRUFF
Governor Jared Polis signed Colorado's Climate Action Plan in May 2019.
Chase Woodruff
But while the Climate Action Plan took a step toward reducing emissions, Colorado is not on track to meet its goals. The law amended Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Act and committed the state to greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction goals of 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and 50 percent by 2030.

“Research shows that we’re way off track to meet those emissions goals that Governor Polis signed into law last year,” Williams says. “If he’s not willing to take bold action to protect our communities and to reduce emissions as he promised, then what is the point of making those promises?”

Stacy Tellinghuisen, a policy analyst for Western Resource Advocates, cites an analysis done earlier this year that determined that if emissions are reduced using currently planned policies, Colorado will still exceed its greenhouse-gas emission goals by roughly 30 million metric tons in 2025 and 46 million metric tons of pollution in 2030.

“We are keenly aware, more so today than ever, of the profound inequity in our communities, and air pollution and climate change have disproportionate effects on low-income communities and communities of color," she says. "We have to ensure that all communities share equally in the benefits of addressing climate change.”

Now, more than ever, it's important to talk about environmental justice in relation to COVID-19, Montgomery says: “We have to change these practices because that is our future. We have to protect the health of our families. We have to protect the health of our kids. And we have to begin to have these honest conversations to figure out what can be done differently so that communities can feel safe...the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat.”

The Colorado Energy Office is developing a road map that will identify a set of policies, rules and incentive programs that will address the broad changes in the economy, but Tellinghuisen says that the Air Quality Control Commission is ultimately responsible for ensuring that climate goals are achieved on the timeline established by the Colorado Legislature. At a meeting of the AQCC on June 17 and 18, she hopes that staffers will offer a set of policies that can be discussed and evaluated in order to decide how to move forward.

“While Colorado has already taken some important steps to address climate change, more work is needed," she says. "We urge our leaders to listen to voters and take additional action to reduce climate pollution and protect our communities — particularly those that continue to suffer disproportionately due to harmful emissions.”
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