‘This is our Flint’: Colorado environmental activists call for investigation following whistleblower complaint

Air quality agency employees say years-long pattern of ignoring modeling worsened Front Range pollution

An image of Denver captured on Aug. 14, 2020, by state air-quality regulators as part of visibility monitoring efforts. (CDPHE)

A coalition of environmental and community groups who have spent years pressuring Colorado’s health department to crack down on air pollution say that the allegations contained in a federal whistleblower complaint this week painted a picture of the agency that’s even worse than they feared.

“This is a huge, huge deal,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director with advocacy group WildEarth Guardians, during a virtual press conference Thursday. “We cannot overstate the severity of this news, and what it means for our health and well-being.”

“This is our Flint, Michigan,” said Ean Thomas Tafoya, an activist with the Colorado Latino Forum. “Government corruption at the sake of people’s health.”

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Nichols, Tafoya and other activists are demanding an independent investigation into what they call the “official misconduct” alleged by the whistleblower complaint, which was filed on March 30 by three air-quality modelers employed by the Air Pollution Control Division, an agency within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

In a letter sent to Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday, representatives of more than a dozen activist groups called for the APCD’s director, Garry Kaufman, to be relieved of his duties and replaced by an outside hire who can restore trust in the agency. They say this week’s whistleblower complaint reveals “a culture of flagrant and constant disregard for law and duty” within the APCD.

The complaint, lodged with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General, alleges a years-long pattern of illegal permitting of air pollution sources — including mines, oil and gas infrastructure, asphalt plants and other industrial facilities — by the APCD. It claims that senior officials instructed employees to ignore modeling requirements mandated by the EPA under the federal Clean Air Act and, in at least one case, ordered a modeler to falsify data in order to ensure that no violations of air-quality standards were reported.

“We are taking these allegations seriously and will conduct a full investigation into the matter,” a spokesperson for Polis wrote in an email.

In a statement, APCD spokesperson Andrew Bare said that the division “cannot comment on the specific allegations at this time, but we are committed to collecting all of the facts related to the allegations and resolving this matter.” But the division’s statement rejected claims made by whistleblowers that its permitting procedures violated the law.

Concerns over agency culture

Colorado’s Front Range has struggled with hazardous levels of air pollution for decades, and the Denver region ranks as the 10th most polluted metro area in the country, according to an American Lung Association report. Many of the allegations made by the whistleblower complaint relate to air-quality standards for nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, both of which are harmful air pollutants that can cause respiratory problems and a wide variety of other negative health impacts. Nitrogen dioxide is also a major contributor to the formation of ground-level ozone.

In their complaint, the whistleblowers — CDPHE employees Rosendo Majano, DeVondria Reynolds and Bradley Rink — accuse the agency of contributing to the region’s air-quality problems by ignoring permitting requirements that would have led to better emissions control measures and fewer or smaller sources of air pollution.

“This violation of the law is … contributing directly to chronic health problems, premature deaths, and severe injury to the environment by permitting ever more dangerous emissions.” — Whistleblower complaint filed with the EPA

The complaint includes copies of internal emails dating back to 2010, in which officials and employees discuss the APCD’s practice of not conducting certain air-quality modeling analyses under its “minor sources” permitting procedures, as long as sources did not exceed certain annual emissions thresholds. The emails show APCD air-quality modelers growing increasingly concerned about the legality of its practices; a March 15 meeting with Kaufman, in which whistleblowers say that supervisors imposed a “blanket prohibition” on certain kinds of modeling work, proved to be the last straw.

“This violation of the law is … contributing directly to chronic health problems, premature deaths, and severe injury to the environment by permitting ever more dangerous emissions,” reads the whistleblower complaint.

In its statement, the APCD disputed the characterization of its practices as unlawful. “Colorado does not have a law or regulation establishing thresholds for modeling minor sources for permitting,” the statement said. “Our permitting process does include thresholds for modeling minor sources based on both annual or short-term emissions depending on the pollutant. These thresholds are consistent with EPA regulations, and our practice has higher standards than those implemented by many other states. Whether Colorado should have stricter standards is a valid question for policymakers to consider, but currently there is no stricter state standard.”

This week’s whistleblower complaint is not the first instance of an APCD employee raising the alarm about its regulatory practices. In 2019, Jeremy Murtaugh, a former air-quality inspector with the division, resigned from the agency in protest of what he said had become a culture of lax enforcement and deference to oil and gas industry profits.

“We were instructed to call the industry our ‘customers,’” Murtaugh told The Denver Post at the time. “It reveals the attitude. I always chafed at that. I always thought our customers were air-breathers.”

The APCD has also been at the center of a prolonged conflict between environmental groups and the Polis administration over the implementation of Colorado’s landmark 2019 climate law.

“This same department is responsible for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to the climate crisis,” Micah Parkin, executive director of climate advocacy group 350 Colorado, said during Thursday’s press conference. “And it is appalling that two years after the passage of (House Bill) 19-1261, there’s still no effective plan in place to achieve our state’s emissions reduction targets.”

Activists praised the whistleblowers as “heroes” for coming forward with their concerns, and urged any other CDPHE employees who have similar complaints to do the same.

“We absolutely see a pattern of practice here, of the state constantly putting polluter interests over the interests of people and impacted communities,” Nichols said. “The revelations this week, we view in some respects as the tip of the iceberg.”

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