by Luis A. Torres, Ph.D.
If you breathed air today and/or drank water, thank the environment. If you breathed clear and clean and fresh air, and you drank pure and healthy water, thank your social milieu and class standing, including most likely your racial and ethnic identity. Not everyone is so lucky.
Issues about the natural ecosystem, global warming, air pollution, and various other forms of environmental degradation are or should be of major concern to everyone in the United States, including, and perhaps especially, to racial and ethnic marginalized communities. The Weekly Issue/El Semanario is committed to environmental justice, and we pledge to our readers to continue to publicize through our newspaper such issues in our communities.
We realize the environment is an all-encompassing actuality in our lives, eminently corporeal and yet of such an incalculable presence as to perhaps recede into abstraction for us. Until something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong. The air becomes polluted where large numbers of our community live, with our children most affected. The land becomes contaminated from toxic chemicals and other substances. Our water becomes infiltrated with lead traces, far beyond the nominal Environmental Protection Agency limits—Did you know, for example, there are allowable limits of both lead and arsenic in water? And our beautiful mountains, wonderful refuge for our souls, lose forests because the pine beetle is rampant due to global warming.
If you breathed clear and clean and fresh air, and you drank pure and healthy water, thank your social milieu and class standing, including most likely your racial and ethnic identity. Not everyone is so lucky.
Denver, Colorado provides unfortunate, glaring examples of such negative effects of environmental degradation especially on the Latino, African American, and Asian American communities. An April 29, 2021 article in The Denver Post (reprinted from The New York Times), entitled “People of color breathe more hazardous air; sources everywhere,” demonstrates this troubling fact. It shows African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans are much more negatively affected than Whites, from pollution of virtually every type. “[N]early all emissions sources caused disproportionate exposures for people of color, on average, as well as separately for Black, Latino and Asian people…. The disparities were seen nationally as well as at the state level, across income levels and across the urban-rural divide”.
The largely Latino population in north Denver and its neighboring Commerce City have been long sufferers of such pollution, including from the Suncor Energy oil refinery, located in Commerce City. The Denver Post article, “Residents demand oil refinery’s closure,” published last week, recounts recent online hearings during which local residents are “targeting Suncor’s 89-year-old refinery… as a toxic relic of the fossil fuel era”. Especially troubling to the community is the exorbitant amount of air pollution the refinery emits, and plans to continue. “A new permit proposed by the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division would increase the annual tonnage of some pollutants that the refinery legally could emit, while reducing others, state officials said at the hearings, for an overall reduction by 217 tons from the current allowable 866,100 tons a year of heat-trapping and toxic air pollution”.
A brief review of that last sentence reveals the enormity of the situation. This “new permit” follows a period during which the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment officials have allowed the refinery to operate using one permit issued in 2006 and another from 2012, “even though permits are meant for five years.” Between March 27 and April 22—a period of only 19 days—“the refinery broke limits 15 times” according to state data the newspaper reviewed. The inaptly-named Colorado Air Pollution Control Division is apparently able to “Control” the assurance that there will be air pollution, since they would permit an “increase [in] the annual tonnage of some pollutants.” Granted, they assert there will be a reduction “by 217 tons from the current allowable 866,100 tons a year.” By my calculation, they would reduce the overall tonnage by 0.025%, a negligible number since the amount of certain pollutants would be interchanged with others. Note especially that these are “tons” at 866,100, minus 217, per year. While this refinery is extremely large, it is but “one of 250 facilities around Colorado where state officials issue permits allowing air pollution”.
Despite this troubling history, in Colorado, thanks to three Legislature bills, we now have perhaps the best opportunity in our history to ensure environmental justice for members of our community. The identifying numbers, with terms by which they are known, are as follows: HB21-1266: Environmental Justice: Disproportionate Impacted Community Bill; SB21-200: Reduce Greenhouse Gases Increase Environmental Justice; and HB21-1189 Regulate Air Toxics. All three include references to “Disproportionately Impacted Communities,” including but not limited to racial and ethnic marginalized communities.
For example, in its preamble paragraph, Senate Bill 21-200 states, “Concerning measures to further environmental protections, and, in connection therewith, adopting measures to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and adopting protections for disproportionately impacted communities.” It would set “strong, enforceable rules to limit pollution from the electricity, oil and gas, transportation, and building sectors and [create] the tools to engage and empower disproportionately impacted communities.” One of the most salient propositions in SB21-200 is in Section 5, which “creates an environmental justice ombudsperson position and an environmental justice advisory board in the department of public health and environment.” It also calls for seeking and enabling “input from disproportionately impacted communities” regarding proposals from the Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC).
House Bill 21-1189 highlights the “serious health impacts for workers and community members” of such toxic air emissions as Benzene, Hydrogen Cyanide, and Hydrogen Sulfide, the latter two which cause damage to the respiratory system, exacerbating for example Covid 19 illness. And House Bill 21-1266 asserts in its preamble, “Environmental justice means that everyone—regardless of race, ethnicity, language, income, or other factors—has the right to live, learn, work, and play in a clean, safe, and healthy environment.” It highlights the past practices—effects of which are still with us—of “redlining and other racist policies [against] Black, Latinx, Indigenous, low-wealth, and working communities” and the resulting egregious health effects.
These above examples of environmental discrimination, and efforts to undo and eliminate their consequences, only sketch the contours of the all-encompassing problems resulting from the too-various forms of pollution. The three above-named bills provide the pathway to better health and lives for our community. The Weekly Issue/El Semanario will continue to publicize and promote such pathways, and we ask our readers to join with us as we support such efforts and travel down these healthier pathways.
Dr. Luis Torres is an Educator, former Deputy Provost for Academic and Student Affairs at Metropolitan State University of Denver and member of The Weekly Issue/El Semanario Advisory Board.
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