Toxic air pollutants targeted in proposed bill from Colorado Democrats
Legislation would enact health-based emissions limits for polluters like Suncor
The Suncor oil refinery, located just north of Denver city limits, is one of the region’s largest sources of toxic air pollution. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
A coalition of Colorado environmental and community groups on Monday unveiled the next step in a years-long effort to close what they say are gaps in federal regulation that have left low-income communities and people of color especially vulnerable to toxic air pollution.
Legislation set to be introduced by Democrats in the Colorado General Assembly this week will address so-called air toxics emitted by industrial pollution sources like the Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City, following up on previous legislation passed by lawmakers in 2020 and 2021.
“Communities of color and low-income communities that have disproportionately faced the impacts (of pollution) deserve better,” Lizeth Chacon, executive director of the Colorado People’s Alliance, said in a statement. “We need to work to ensure that we are prioritizing our health and safety and not the bottom line of corporations.”
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Activists and lawmakers spoke at the state Capitol on Monday in support of a bill that sponsor Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Democrat from Denver, said would help create a “safe and healthy environment” for all Coloradans.
“I can’t tell you how many young people have had to miss school because of their issues with asthma and inability to just walk to school because of the air,” Gonzales-Gutierrez said. “Study after study has shown … that toxic pollution systemically and disproportionately harms people of color.”
House Bill 21-1189, passed by state legislators last year, required polluters like Suncor to conduct real-time, “fenceline” emissions monitoring and establish emergency notification systems to alert nearby communities of potentially hazardous incidents. The new legislation would go further, directing regulators at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to set health-based emissions limits and enact rules to enforce them.
The full text of the forthcoming bill was not yet available as of late Monday. Previous air toxics legislation has focused on a list of specific pollutants including benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, and hydrogen cyanide, a byproduct of certain industrial processes that has historically been used as a chemical warfare agent.
Regulating the health impacts of toxics has been left up the the states, and many other states, including Texas, California, Oregon, Kentucky and others, have taken bold action to protect communities ... It is time for Colorado, too, to take toxic pollution seriously by passing this bill.
– Becca Curry, policy counsel for environmental group Earthjustice
The two chemicals belong to a class of 188 substances designated as “hazardous air pollutants” by the Environmental Protection Agency. The HAP classification triggers some federal regulations, but not the more rigorous health-based emissions standards that the EPA applies to sources of the six “criteria pollutants,” a group than includes ozone, particulate matter and carbon monoxide.
“We’re talking about substances in the air that are known to cause cancer or other serious health impacts,” said Becca Curry, policy counsel for environmental group Earthjustice.
In the absence of federal health limits, state regulators have come under scrutiny for allowing industrial pollution sources like the Suncor refinery to set their own emissions limits. Environmental groups say Colorado’s state-level air toxics rules have fallen behind.
“Regulating the health impacts of toxics has been left up the the states, and many other states, including Texas, California, Oregon, Kentucky and others, have taken bold action to protect communities,” Curry added. “It is time for Colorado, too, to take toxic pollution seriously by passing this bill.”
A spokesperson for Suncor wrote in an email that the company is reviewing the bill language. The company has long said its emissions of hydrogen cyanide and other air toxics are well below the level that would pose a threat to nearby communities.
“Our goal is to have open and factual discussions to find the right legislative solutions,” the company’s statement said. “We hope to continue conversations with the sponsors and other stakeholders and subject matter experts to find the best ways to achieve the bill’s air monitoring objectives for Colorado.”
Suncor, along with oil and gas industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute, lobbied lawmakers for changes to HB-1189 last year, records show. HB-1189 was passed on a party-line vote in the House of Representatives, with all Republicans opposed; GOP state Sen. Kevin Priola of Adams County was the lone member of his party to vote for the bill in the Senate.
According to supporters, the latest air toxics legislation will propose the creation of a new program within CDPHE to coordinate the state’s regulation of certain pollutants. While fossil-fuel facilities are likely to be among those impacted, bill sponsors say not all of the pollution sources in question are obvious.
“It’s not always oil and gas and refineries,” said Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Democrat from Lakewood. “There’s a medical device manufacturer in my district that uses ethylene oxide to sterilize their medical equipment. They put in place some controls to try to limit their emissions in the community, but we have no way of knowing whether they’ve been successful.”
The latest air toxics legislation comes after Colorado’s Front Range experienced its worst summer for air quality in over a decade. In addition to regional efforts to curb more commonly known air pollutants like ozone, supporters say that stronger protections for fenceline communities will help reduce the health risks that many Coloradans face.
“It is no secret that here in Colorado, our air is not nearly as clean as we all want it to be,” state Sen. Julie Gonzales said Monday. “And too often, it’s the folks on the margins who have to pay the highest price.”
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