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Colorado Regulators Short on Funding Amid Climate, Clean-Air Push

Craig Station, a coal-fired power plant in Moffat County, Colorado.EXPAND
Craig Station, a coal-fired power plant in Moffat County, Colorado.
Jimmy Thomas / Flickr

A little over a year into Governor Jared Polis's administration, the state agency that's been given the longest and most important to-do list is undoubtedly the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

CDPHE's various regulatory bodies and rulemaking commissions have been tasked with leading the state's charge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate an economy-wide transition to clean energy; they're helping oil and gas regulators overhaul state rules in the wake of a landmark fracking bill, and after a federal air-quality downgrade, they're stepping up efforts to tackle the Front Range's ozone problem; and they’re dealing with emerging public-health concerns about vaping, toxic firefighting chemicals and more.

As the work piles up, CDPHE officials are sending a clear message to lawmakers at the State Capitol: Achieving all this will require funding that the department doesn’t have right now.

“It’s our number-one priority, to get more resources in,” says John Putnam, the department’s director of environmental programs. “Both to provide monitoring tools, but also to provide the staff who are out on the ground, inspecting, doing health assessments, writing permits, all of those pieces, so that we can fill in those gaps.”

On Tuesday, January 21, Putnam and CDPHE executive director Jill Hunsaker Ryan delivered their annual briefing to lawmakers as required by Colorado’s State Measurement for Accountable, Responsive, and Transparent Government (SMART) Act. While touting the department’s progress in 2019, including the adoption of an electric-vehicle mandate and new oil and gas emissions rules, officials painted a picture of a department that’s increasingly underfunded and “oversubscribed” — particularly its Air Pollution Control Division, responsible for most of its climate and clean-air efforts.

Colorado employs just one toxicologist, who is tasked with evaluating public-health risks across more than a half-dozen environmental and health divisions; by comparison, Putnam told lawmakers, Minnesota has 38 state toxicologists and California has over a hundred. CDPHE has just one mobile air-monitoring unit, which typically needs to be deployed for weeks at a time to be effective. The number of inspectors assigned to oil and gas sites, responsible for finding leaks of greenhouse gases like methane and ozone-forming pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs), hasn’t kept up with the industry’s explosive growth over the last decade.

“We’re seeing a significant gap [between] our capability and what I think the public is demanding right now,” Putnam told lawmakers in a joint meeting of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and the House Energy and Environment Committee.

In its 2020-’21 budget request, CDPHE is seeking funding for 21 additional full-time employees to beef up the air-pollution division’s staff, including doubling the size of its oil and gas inspection unit. The requested staff and funding increases would also allow the department to purchase a new mobile air-monitoring unit and establish two new VOC monitoring sites in oil- and gas-producing areas along the Front Range.

Of course, funding increases never come easy in Colorado, and department officials are also pushing for long-term solutions, including legislation this session that would allow the air-pollution division to increase the fees that it’s able to collect from polluters through its permitting and enforcement processes. A bill passed in 2018 raised the statutory cap on those fees by 25 percent, but with funding needs continuing to grow, the department now wants to eliminate the cap entirely.

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“It’s a good start, but it doesn’t provide enough resources for the under-resourced Air Pollution Control Division to catch up, and keep up, with the air-quality issues the state faces today,” Ryan told lawmakers at Tuesday’s briefing.

A separate bill introduced by House Democrats last week would raise the limit on the fines that CDPHE is allowed to impose for air- and water-quality violations to the federal maximum of $47,357, and place that money in a dedicated cash fund to cover mitigation costs.

CDPHE regulators will probably need every last bit of funding they can get as the scope of their work continues to expand. The department has hired a new team dedicated to climate change, and next month, its Air Quality Control Commission is scheduled to begin developing a sweeping set of rules governing greenhouse gas reporting requirements and emissions limits, which could be formally adopted as early as May.

“We’ve been doing this with the resources we’ve had, but we haven’t had big increases for a while,” Putnam says. “We’re trying to gear up to match the demands and expectations that we have to deliver on a lot of the policy goals that were set by the legislature last year, and that we need to do for public health.”

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