• April 14th, 2024
  • Sunday, 01:47:57 AM

Groups Sue Colorado Air Regulators Over ‘Inadequate’ Environmental Justice Rule

Fracking infrastructure is pictured through playground equipment at the Bella Romero Academy in Greeley on June 24, 2020. (Andy Bosselman for Colorado Newsline)


By Chase Woodruff


Three Colorado environmental groups on Monday sued a panel of state air-quality regulators, alleging that a permitting rule adopted earlier this year failed to live up to the requirements of a 2021 environmental justice law.


GreenLatinos, 350 Colorado and Earthworks filed their lawsuit against the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission in Denver District Court, petitioning a judge to order the commission to revise and strengthen its Disproportionately Impacted Communities Permitting Rule.


The rule was adopted by the AQCC in May, pursuant to a law passed by Democrats in the General Assembly in 2021, which directed the commission to enact “enhanced modeling and monitoring requirements” for pollution sources in communities with high percentages of low-income residents or residents of color. In Colorado and elsewhere, these “fenceline” communities located near industrial areas, highways and other infrastructure have long been disproportionately burdened by pollution.


Environmental justice advocates fault the AQCC’s rule for its limited scope. It applies only to a select number of pollutants, and largely eschews “source-specific” monitoring in favor of a “community monitoring” structure, through which polluters will pay additional permitting fees to fund a state-administered program to monitor ambient air quality.


The rule makes Colorado one of only two states to have enacted such a policy, state officials said after its adoption, arguing that it “meets or exceeds” the requirements of the new law.


“When it comes to protecting clean air, we want all Coloradans to have a seat at the table,” Michael Ogletree, director of the state’s Air Pollution Control Division, said in a statement at the time.


Advocates had urged the AQCC during its rulemaking process to adopt an alternative proposal with stricter requirements on specific pollution sources. Instead, they say, the commission opted for an “unreasonably vague” policy that includes few details about how the community monitoring program will work.


“Without the monitoring and modeling data required by the Act, (disproportionately impacted) communities remain vulnerable to the effects of air pollution because they lack the information they need to protect themselves from exposure and to seek accountability from polluters,” the advocates’ lawsuit alleges.


Patricia Garcia Nelson, a policy advocate for GreenLatinos Colorado, called the state’s proposed monitoring program “simply an outline of a rough draft” that won’t produce meaningful results for vulnerable communities.


Nelson first became involved in Colorado environmental activism in 2018, when her son was a student at Bella Romero Academy in Greeley, in close proximity to an oil and gas drilling project that made national headlines. The site was chosen near the predominantly low-income and Latino school after its operator, Extraction Oil and Gas, canceled plans to drill near a wealthier school with a higher proportion of white families nearby.


Elevated levels of benzene, a hazardous air pollutant and carcinogen, were later detected near Bella Romero during drilling operations. The episode was one of many similar outcomes that advocates say policies like Colorado’s new environmental justice law, if properly implemented, are designed to prevent.


“The Environmental Justice Act was clear about what is required from the rule, and we hope that this suit sends the commission back to the drawing board,” Ian Coghill, a senior attorney with Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office, which is representing the groups, said in a statement. “Communities across the state continue to suffer at the hands of big polluters and it is time for meaningful action to change that.”


Chase Woodruff is a Reporter for Colorado Newsline. This article is republished from Colorado Newsline under a Creative Commons license.