EPA investigates Colorado for discrimination against Hispanic residents with air pollution regulations

DENVER – The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating whether air pollution controls from industrial facilities in Colorado discriminate against Hispanic residents and other racial minorities, according to a letter released Wednesday.

This is a level of verification long ask Lucy Molina, whose daughter attends school near Colorado’s only petroleum refinery. Three years ago, Molina had just stepped outside when he noticed a coating of ash on his Nissan Altima that had rubbed off on his fingers. Then she gets a message that her daughter’s school is on lockdown and panics. He later learned that the refinery had malfunctioned, spewing a clay-like substance into the air. He has heard of lockdowns for shootings, but never for pollution.

Since then he has pushed for community air monitoring and stronger protections, but it has all come too late. He has lived here for 30 years and his children are already young.

“If only we knew” years ago, he said. “We’d move.”

Advocates say Sanco’s refinery often malfunctions, causing emissions to rise. They say Colorado rarely denies permits to polluters, even in areas where harmful ozone already exceeds federal standards.

Federal investigators said in the letter that they will look into the state’s oversight of Colorado’s biggest polluters, such as the Suncor oil refinery in north Denver where Molina lives, and whether that pollution’s impact on residents is discriminatory.

Suncor did not respond to requests for comment.

EPA initiated its investigation under Title VI Civil Rights Act of 1964. It has been going on since March but was little noticed until Wednesday’s letter, which explains its scope. The act allows EPA to negotiate agreements with states to promote equity. The Biden administration has increased Enforcement of environmental discrimination.

Colorado officials said they welcome the EPA review, more community involvement, and are reviewing their permitting policies to ensure they are focused on environmental justice.

“We’ve always prioritized the health and well-being of every Coloradan, regardless of their zip code, but we know we have more to do,” said Trisha Oth, our director of environmental health and safety, in a statement.

But EPA has sometimes found that priority lacking.

The agency investigated Suncor’s management of the state. Colorado’s only oil refinery is nearly 90 years old and is the state’s leading emitter of greenhouse gas emissions.

In March, the EPA objected to an original air permit for the facility that state regulators were still reviewing 10 years after its original expiration date. The agency raised “significant environmental justice concerns” and said the public had not been given an adequate opportunity to weigh in. EPA did not object when the state issued a revised permit.

In July, the agency also said the state had granted permits for a mine, oil and gas wells and other small polluters even though they could contribute to violations of federal air quality standards. Colorado said it would improve its reviews, but refrained from reconsidering its permitting decisions.

Yet there are some signs that the company chose Colorado because it could prove a willing partner.

“Colorado is a state that has led the way in addressing environmental justice in the legislature,” said Casey Baker, chief of the EPA region that includes Colorado and former state legislative leaders.

Colorado has strengthened air monitoring requirements. It also increased funding for air permit reviews. The state’s greenhouse gas reduction plan aims to reduce pollution in overburdened areas. It works with the EPA to ensure inspections target the most polluted areas, and when companies reach settlements for wrongdoing, they pay for projects that benefit communities.

Jeremy Nichols, head of WildEarth’s climate and energy program, said the changes “created an opening for the EPA to say, ‘Well, if you’re committed to this, let’s test it, prove your mettle here,'” parent.

Nichols said Colorado is very respectful of the industry. He wants to see the state deny permits more often.

Ian Coghill, an attorney with EarthJustice that is challenging the Suncor permit, said the push and pull between the EPA and the state has not led to major improvements. Revising Suncor’s permit, he said “didn’t change much.”

He’s hopeful that the civil rights investigation will force the state to change and address the growing impact of industrial pollution on North Denver residents.

“I’m definitely optimistic,” he said.

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