Briefline

EPA faults Colorado air quality regulators over whistleblower claims

By: - July 15, 2022 10:58 am

The Rocky Mountains are faintly visible as air pollution blankets Denver in a thick layer of haze on July 29, 2021. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday faulted Colorado air quality regulators for failing to comply with requirements under the federal Clean Air Act, further corroborating the substance of allegations made by a group of whistleblowers in a 2021 complaint.

The three whistleblowers, who were current or former employees of the modeling unit at the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division, alleged a pattern of unlawful permitting of certain pollution sources. An independent investigation ordered by Attorney General Phil Weiser concluded last year that the APCD, a division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, “failed to follow mandatory requirements” under federal law.

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An extensive review conducted by the EPA’s Region 8 headquarters in Denver echoes the findings of the state’s investigation, confirming that the APCD’s procedures for minor source permitting were inconsistent with Clean Air Act requirements and “could result in harm to air quality and public health.”

“The records showed that CDPHE issued permits even though air quality modeling analyses predicted (air quality) violations,” the report says. “These violations predicted by the model were not addressed by refined or more representative air quality modeling, use of supplemental air quality data to support the permit conditions, or additional permit conditions that would address the predicted violations.”

‘Culture of fear’

The report outlines six recommendations for APCD regulators, including an overhaul of the agency’s minor source permitting procedures and amending existing permits of some pollution sources identified in the complaint. The EPA is asking the state to provide a written response to the report by Oct. 21.

“It is gratifying to see the new EPA send a clear message of reform to the state,” said Chandra Rosenthal, Rocky Mountain director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which filed the whistleblower complaint on behalf of the APCD employees. “EPA agreed with the whistleblowers that the Clean Air Act requires pollution prevention while the CDPHE persists with its unsustainable strategy of merely monitoring pollution rather than preventing it.”

In a 2021 Newsline investigation into the APCD, whistleblowers and former employees described an agency plagued by low morale, insufficient funding and a “culture of fear” in which staff were pressured to issue permits at all costs, especially amid the explosive growth of Colorado’s oil and gas industry throughout the 2010s.

In a statement, the APCD touted steps it has taken since the release of the independent investigation’s report last year, including convening a scientific panel to recommend changes to the division’s procedures.

“We have been taking steps to address systemic issues within the division, including reorganization, modernization, seeking significant new investment, revamping procedures, improving processes, and acquiring leading edge technology in monitoring and permitting,” the APCD’s statement said. “The EPA report acknowledges and commends the voluntary measures that the division has already taken to address minor source permitting concerns.”

Just prior to the release of the EPA’s report this week, Gov. Jared Polis sent a letter to officials at CDPHE and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, urging them to “take additional steps to improve air quality for Coloradans.”

Those steps include “an evaluation of cumulative impacts and air quality permit modeling,” to be completed by July 1, 2023. Polis also touted increases in funding for the APCD and other clean-air efforts contained in the state’s 2022-23 budget. 

“My administration and the general assembly has put air quality and climate change at the forefront and while those policies are noble they did not come with adequate funding to set CDPHE up for success,” Polis wrote. “This budget finally does and I am confident you now have the tools to lead Colorado to a cleaner, healthier future.”

Editor’s note: This post was updated at 9:52 a.m., July 18, 2022, to include a statement from the Air Pollution Control Division.

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Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Reporter Chase Woodruff covers the environment, the economy and other stories for Colorado Newsline.

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