Lawmakers Call for “Environmental Justice” Amid Colorado's Clean-Air Push

The Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City is one of the largest stationary sources of air pollution in Colorado.
The Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City is one of the largest stationary sources of air pollution in Colorado. WildEarth Guardians / Flickr
As Colorado steps up its efforts to reduce air pollution around Denver and across the state, a broad coalition of advocates and Democratic lawmakers are pushing for greater emphasis on “environmental justice” — and it starts with making sure that communities, regulators and industry know exactly what that is.

“There is not a definition, in Colorado state statutes, of what an environmental justice community is,” says Representative Dominique Jackson, a Democrat from Aurora. “So we’re putting that on the books — that certain communities that haven’t had a seat at the table are guaranteed to have a seat at the table.”

On Monday, February 10, Jackson and other lawmakers unveiled House Bill 1143, which would increase the maximum penalties that regulators can impose on violators of state air- and water-quality rules, and give affected communities more of a say in how that money is spent.

Under current law, polluters can be fined a maximum of $15,000 per day for most air-quality violations and $10,000 per day for most water-quality violations. The Democrats’ bill would raise both limits to the federal maximum of $47,357 per day, and adjust it annually according to inflation. It would also create a new environmental justice advisory board within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which would choose how to spend any money collected through fines with a focus on “mitigation projects” in affected communities.

“This bill is about air and water quality, it’s about health and safety, but most of all, it’s about environmental justice,” said Representative Serena Gonzalez-Gutierrez, a Democrat from Denver and one of the bill’s lead sponsors, at the press conference announcing the bill. “It’s no secret that when corporations put profit over people by polluting the air we breath and the water our children drink, it’s often low-income communities that are the hardest hit. It’s often black and brown communities that are disproportionately impacted.”

Officials at CDPHE are ramping up the state's efforts to clean up its air following the passage of new state-level emissions rules and an Environmental Protection Agency ruling that classified the Front Range as a "serious" violator of federal air-quality standards. It's an issue that hits especially close to home in north Denver communities like Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, as well as the town of Commerce City, all located in the shadow of some of the state's largest sources of air pollution, including the Suncor Energy oil refinery.

In December, following a series of failed inspections and a refinery malfunction that placed two nearby schools on lockdown, CDPHE regulators sent Suncor a compliance advisory listing more than fifty pages of alleged violations; they're currently negotiating a settlement. HB 1143 aims to ensure that in the future, the fines collected as a result of such an enforcement action would fund projects in the surrounding community — but the bill is about more than just one polluter and its neighbors, sponsors said.

"Suncor's been in the news a lot, and Suncor was at the table as we were negotiating this bill," said Jackson "But this is not a Suncor bill; this is a Colorado bill."

"Every Coloradan has a right to clean air and water," Gonzalez-Gutierrez added. "And anyone who disrespects our air and water should have to pay the price."

The House Energy and Environment Committee voted 7-4 on February 10 to advance HB 1143, which also needs approval from the Finance Committee before moving to the full House.
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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