Colorado Democrats Introduce Bill to Raise Fines on Polluters

Suncor's Commerce City refinery ranks as one of Colorado's largest stationary sources of air pollution.
Suncor's Commerce City refinery ranks as one of Colorado's largest stationary sources of air pollution. af_istocker/iStock
A new bill introduced by Colorado lawmakers would raise the maximum penalty that state regulators are able to impose on polluters — and give impacted communities more of a say in how that money is spent.

“We’re giving people who are experiencing harmful pollutants and the effects of these pollutants an opportunity to decide how they should be made whole,” says Representative Dominique Jackson, a Democrat from Aurora.

In most cases, state law currently allows regulators at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to impose a penalty of $15,000 per day for an air-quality violation and $10,000 per day for a water-quality violation. House Bill 1143, introduced on Friday, January 17, would raise both figures to $47,357 — the maximum allowed under federal law — beginning in 2021, and adjust it annually from there.

Under the bill, any penalties or fines collected by CDPHE regulators through an enforcement action would flow into a new community impact fund. An environmental-justice advisory board, made up of four members appointed by the legislature and three members appointed by CDPHE’s executive director, would be tasked with collaborating with residents of communities impacted by pollution to fund specific “environmental mitigation projects.”

“I wanted to make sure, first and foremost, that the people in these impacted communities had a say,” Jackson says. “They know their communities better than anybody else, and they know what they need.”

Persistently high levels of ozone pollution along the Front Range led the Environmental Protection Agency to downgrade the region’s air-quality rating in a December ruling — a trend that is attributable in part to emissions from Colorado’s booming oil and gas industry. Jackson says that her bill wasn't prompted by any specific incident or industry, though she acknowledges that environmental justice is a priority in so-called fenceline communities like Commerce City, where a December 11 malfunction at the Suncor Energy oil refinery emitted a plume of yellow ash-like material that coated outdoor surfaces and alarmed nearby residents.

“These kinds of events are happening across the state,” Jackson says. “Clearly, yes, it could be some sort of opacity event like we just experienced [with Suncor]. It could be a water-quality violation, some sort of dumping of toxins. This is not a bill that is pointing a finger at any particular industry. But we do know that there are violations occurring.

"This bill is for every single solitary Coloradan," she adds. "Every person that lives in this state has a right to clean air and clean water. And we just want to make sure that that's what they're getting."

HB 1143 will be heard in the House Energy Committee and the House Finance Committee. Senator Faith Winter, a Democrat from Thornton, is the bill’s only sponsor in the Senate.
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff