Environmental Justice Advisory Board Wants Colorado to Lead on Climate Policy

The state legislature passed a new environmental justice bill in June that established the board.
The state legislature passed a new environmental justice bill in June that established the board. Martin Ely, Creative Commons, Flickr
Jorge Figueroa lives in Lafayette with his six children and wonders what their future will look like — especially after staring at the damage done by the Marshall fire.

“When people see the magnitude of the impact that climate change is going to have…the typical response is three different types of responses,” he says. “One, we can’t do this in terms of a solution. Number two, can we do this? Or number three, how are we going to do this? As a parent with children who were born and raised in Colorado, the only option I have is how,” Figueroa says.

Figueroa is a community partnerships administrator in the Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency for the City and County of Denver, and one of the inaugural members of the Environmental Justice Advisory Board, established during the 2021 legislative session as part of HB21-1266, an environmental justice bill. Figueroa wants to use his time on the board to push the state to consider how it can help solve the climate crisis, in part because he’s a father and sees an immediate need to build a future where his children can thrive.

“One of the reasons I joined the board was just to make sure that we don't have, like an ostrich, our heads under the sand with regard to really tackling the sources of air pollution in our under-resourced communities, including the sources of wildfires,” Figueroa says.
click to enlarge Jorge Figueroa is one of the inaugural members of the Environmental Justice Advisory Board. - JORGE FIGUEROA
Jorge Figueroa is one of the inaugural members of the Environmental Justice Advisory Board.
Jorge Figueroa
The board will get a chance to address sources of air pollution, among other environmental issues, at its quarterly meetings; the first meeting was January 5.

Unlike the Environmental Justice Action Task Force, its counterpart created by the legislation, this board is permanent. Eleven voting members were nominated for four-year terms by either the governor or the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment; the twelfth member is the CDPHE's executive director, who will not vote.

Figueroa and David Rojas-Rueda, assistant professor of epidemiology at Colorado State University, were both nominated by Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the CDPHE's executive director. Rojas-Rueda was impressed with the diversity of the board, both in members' approaches to environmental justice and in life experience. That will lead to better solutions for communities, he suggests.

“There are different representatives of the community, persons who work in different organizations across Colorado, with different visions, so it was fantastic to meet everyone and get to know each other a little bit more,” Rojas-Rueda says of the first meeting. Figueroa was equally impressed, praising the CDPHE for its work to make the meeting run smoothly.

The board has four main functions: advising the CDPHE on best practices for engaging with disproportionately impacted communities; responding to policy matters referred to it by the governor or CDPHE; setting up an environmental justice grant program; and coordinating with the new Environmental Justice Ombudsperson.

Rojas-Rueda is hopeful that his background as a researcher will come in handy while working with the ombudsman and on the grant program. “Data is something that is very relevant to make better decisions, but we don't have all the data that we probably wish to have,” he says. “We don't have all the knowledge that we wish to have. So there are certain limitations without the evidence and data.”

Rojas-Rueda works on public-health analyses that could help the board identify potential solutions. He plans to release a map of the state that will show common health outcomes, socioeconomic indicators and environmental exposures at the census-block level for the entire state; he’s been working on the map in conjunction with the CDPHE.
click to enlarge David Rojas-Rueda studies public health in Colorado. - DAVID ROJAS-RUEDA
David Rojas-Rueda studies public health in Colorado.
David Rojas-Rueda
“These kinds of tools will be one of the pieces that will help us to identify geographically where this funding probably will be most needed, and for which kind of issues that will be important,” Rojas-Rueda says. “That will help us also to identify where air pollution is more an issue, where water quality is more an issue, where other types of facilities are more an issue.”

The ombudsperson will be hired in the next few months; Figueroa believes that will be a powerful position, because Colorado’s disproportionately impacted communities will have a full-time advocate in government.

Figueroa has worked in stakeholder engagement for years; he was a water policy analyst for Western Resource Advocates for eight years and completed a Fulbright on community forestry, giving him expertise both with policy issues and community engagement. He's emphasized the importance of public input to the rest of the board. 

The schedule for the first board meeting reserved the last two hours for public comment. After the first hour, during which every member of the public who was present had spoken, the board held a question-and-answer session instead of ending the meeting early. “We were all, on the board, very interested with the comments, and so it allowed us to dig a little deeper and ask some questions and get even more clarity from the public when we were able to have that rich interaction,” Figueroa says.

Rojas-Rueda says he enjoyed the question-and-answer session because he thinks the board needs to ask as many questions as it answers so that it understands how best to help and reach Coloradans. He notes that not everyone will constantly check the CDPHE website, which has a wealth of information, so the board will search for other ways to reach out.

Figueroa left the first meeting feeling optimistic. He sees Colorado as a leader in environmental justice; Rojas-Rueda points out that the only other state with an Environmental Justice Advisory Board is Pennsylvania.

“I just just want to share…how proud I am of the commitment of Colorado's leaders from Jill Hunsaker [Ryan] at the CDPHE, to the governor's office, to the state legislature and city councils who are implementing really progressive, very forward-looking models…it's very hopeful,” Figueroa says. “There's still a ton of work that needs to be done in order to earn the trust of environmental justice communities, but I feel like we're on the right path.”

Figueroa knows that when his children are in their thirties, the world will inevitably be different. But he believes that the Environmental Justice Advisory Board can help transform Colorado into a state that is environmentally sound, and equitable, before it’s too late.

“It's going to be a lot of work," he concludes, "but it's also going to be fun."
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire