Lawmakers tasked Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission in 2021 with forcing 18 of Colorado’s biggest manufacturers to clean up their acts.
After two years of work, however, the final rule put in place by the commission falls well short of the intended purpose of the legislation, which was to protect nearby residents from the health impacts of breathing polluted air. Instead, the commission included two separate loopholes in the rules that will allow a company to simply pay money to buy credits to offset their emissions or into a fund instead of reducing their pollution.
Yes, the legislation also addresses greenhouse gases as part of the scope of intended emissions reductions, but this was not a bill about climate change (an issue where there could be a benefit in the net reduction of greenhouse gases even if it wasn’t occurring locally).
Predominately, House Bill 1266, addressed the sad reality that for generations Colorado’s low-income communities have suffered the brunt of the state’s industrial pollution. Those communities also tend to have a higher population of Black, Latino, and indigenous people, often the result of decades of racist policies that both forced people of color to live in less desirable neighborhoods and also zoned land near communities of color industrial out of some combination of malice and indifference.
Environmental injustice is real and there are documented negative health consequences of living in a community that has poor air quality whether it is from heavy industrial activities nearby or heavy traffic on an interstate or highway.
Christina Ruiz was one of several residents who came to the commission requesting a reduction of pollution in her community in Henderson.
“Some days there are unpleasant odors which cause me headaches, stomach aches and some days I even feel like throwing up,” Ruiz was quoted in The Denver Post as telling the commission. “We know some businesses won’t comply with the law and they’ll do everything they can to get around it.”
Our takeaway from the commissioners’ loopholes is that they don’t believe Ruiz and the countless stories from people who live near major polluters. These stories are that their children suffer from asthma at increased rates or that babies are being born with low birth weights. Proving that air quality is to blame for the documented poor health outcomes in these communities is nearly impossible, and the anecdotal evidence doesn’t seem to sway the hearts and minds of those who could do something about it.
Instead, the commissioners should have asked themselves: how much money it would take to convince them to move within a half-mile east of Suncor with their children? Perhaps, then, the commissioners would have realized that a credit exchange or allowing companies to pay into a fund that would financially benefit the community are simply not going to create environmental justice. Just as the ruling that forced Suncor to buy electric lawn tools for neighbors instead of forcing the company to comply with emissions standards is a slap in the face to those with valid concerns about their health.
We understand the balancing act the commission must perform.
Doug Benevento, who worked for a time as an administrator for EPA Region 8 and now is an attorney representing the interests of businesses, described the push and pull nicely to The Post.
“It’s not clear how the standard can be met at any of these facilities. It may just not be possible,” Benevento said, echoing fears that companies would pay millions of dollars to leave Colorado rather than paying potentially more to come into compliance with the new regulations.
While closing these facilities would be what is best for nearby residents, it would hurt the state’s economy, lead to job losses, and have other negative consequences like increased prices for asphalt and fuels. There is a cost-benefit analysis that needs to happen.
However, the commission’s solution to that problem was lazy, unthoughtful, and as insulting as offering electric lawnmowers as recompense for polluting the air.
Instead of creating an overly complicated credit market or a pollution fund, the commission could have required companies that can’tcomply with the new regulations to submit applications for waivers.
These temporary waivers from compliance with the law could have forced the companies to disclose the technologies they investigated to reduce their pollution, the costs of implementation, and a financial disclosure proving the investment would be financially impossible. Then the state and neighbors would have had a detailed roadmap for how to close the gap for these companies using incentives and other tools to get cleaner air before the waiver expired.
Such disclosures should be the focus of these new rules (specific rules for the pollution fund have not been drafted yet) but at the bidding of companies, the commission added the fund in at the last minute.
It feels as though the commission just took the word of the executives of these companies who said they couldn’t reduce pollution without any hard and fast evidence.
We are not surprised that the commission would take the word of rich corporate executives about their finances and the cost of compliance but not believe everyday community members talking about their health struggles. But we are disappointed.
“There was just a huge imbalance of power in the room. We were very disappointed to see the commission adopt this rule that doesn’t satisfy the Environmental Justice Act,” Collin Tomb told The Denver Post. The Boulder County climate and health strategist summed it up nicely: “The pattern of deference we’re seeing to industry is just really remarkable.”
The companies in question are often good corporate citizens to Colorado — Molson Coors, Cargill Meat Solutions, Microchip Technology, Leprino Foods, Natural Soda, Western Sugar Cooperative and Suncor Energy — but that doesn’t mean the state should trust every word of executives who are required first and foremost to fight for their company’s bottom line.