The Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City is one of Colorado’s largest sources of air pollution. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
Denver has long been famous for dirty air. In recent years air pollution throughout the Front Range has warranted increasing concern as regulation of toxic emissions proved persistently inadequate. The fouled state of the air presents an immediate risk to public health and is a manifestation of the regulatory breakdown behind the far more dangerous and accelerating crisis of climate change.
Coloradans might once have viewed the state as at least honest in trying to regulate polluters, even if it was often ineffective. But its failures are so persistent, the matter is so critical, and the cause for distrust is so deep that new leadership is necessary. Garry Kaufman, the top official at the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division, can no longer effectively lead the agency and should be replaced.
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Climate change, caused by emissions of greenhouse gases, increasingly poses a direct threat through wildfires and drought to life, property and livelihoods in Colorado. State officials are engaged in a battle over how best to achieve emission reductions, with some Democratic lawmakers advocating enforceable limits while the Democratic governor favors a more collaborative approach. The stakes are high, and no matter how the state achieves emission reductions both sides agree dramatic reductions are crucial to the health of humans and the planet they inhabit.
But the state is already way behind in achieving its emissions-reduction goals, and in general it has failed to maintain clean air. In 2019, after years of noncompliance with federal ozone limits, the EPA classified the Denver region as a “serious” violator of pollution standards. Concentrations of the hazardous pollutant, which largely comes from oil and gas operations and tailpipes, remained elevated through 2020.
The Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City is one of the state’s worst-offending polluters, and it bespoils the environment of predominantly low-income neighborhoods. As it emits sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds, it has established an infamous history of pollution violations. It’s operating on expired permits, and it “regularly has polluted at levels above the limits” set by those permits, according to The Denver Post. Suncor is emblematic of a culture of permissiveness among state regulators. “State health department officials couldn’t cite a case over the past 50 years where the agency has denied a permit for a major industrial polluter,” according to the Post.
Recent revelations leave residents with even less reason to trust the officials whose job it is to protect air quality in the state.
In late March, as first reported in The Colorado Sun, three air-quality modelers from the APCD alleged in a whistleblower complaint that the division had engaged in a pattern of illegal permitting of mines, oil and gas operations, asphalt plants and other industrial sources of air pollution. The complaint said “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,” according to a Newsline report.
The accusations were accorded legitimacy when the Colorado attorney general announced the launch of an independent investigation based on the whistleblower complaint. Gov. Jared Polis’ office said it was “taking these allegations seriously.”
The complaint naturally put Kaufman in the crosshairs of clean-air advocates. And there was more to come.
The Sun reported last month that Kaufman as APCD director on multiple occasions signed off on pollution-limit exemptions for a gold mining company he previously represented as a private attorney. Kaufman’s LinkedIn indicates he was an environmental attorney at Holland & Hart from 2014 to 2017, specializing in “the energy and mining industries regarding air quality permitting” and related matters. In Washington, people like Kaufman, who wade through the slimy waters between industry and government, are called swamp creatures.
Failed leadership at a state agency is troubling enough, but it’s worse when it’s an agency with responsibilities related to urgent pollution problems.
A crisis of confidence overshadows Kaufman’s agency. Whatever the outcome of the independent investigation, it is hard to see — given decades of lingering air pollution in Colorado, given state regulators’ history of deference to industry, given Kaufman’s industry ties, given the increasing threat of climate change — how Kaufman can remain a credible protector of air quality in Colorado.
That’s why it’s time for new leadership at the Air Pollution Control Division.
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