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New Commerce City air pollution monitoring program leaves some community members both "validated" and "frustrated"

New Commerce City air pollution monitoring program leaves some community members both "validated" an
New Commerce City air pollution monitoring program leaves some community members both "validated" an 03:48

New results from an independent community air quality monitoring site in Commerce City show that air pollution levels there tend to be higher than other comparable metro area sites to the northwest of it. The results are creating a sense of validation and hope among some residents of Commerce City and north Denver neighborhoods who said they previously felt their air pollution concerns went ignored. 

"As neighbors, we can sense it, we feel it, we smell the pollution," said Mimi Madrid, who has lived in north Denver's Swansea neighborhood for 10 years. "It can be intense when it comes to the environmental issues that we face."

She's grateful to see the local nonprofit, Cultivando, conducting independent air pollution monitoring in her community.

Cultivando's executive director Olga Gonzalez says the monitoring was made possible from money provided by the Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City, following a settlement agreement with the state health department, after the facility had repeated air quality emissions violations.

"We have community members who keep going into the hospital for breathing problems, and other issues, feeling lightheaded, constant headaches," Gonzalez said. "This monitoring is important, because it's never happened in the history of this community, where we have a monitoring system that is really led and guided by community request, and so I think it dignifies their experiences, it honors their voice."

From February to June of this year, Cultivando's Commerce City monitor found consistently high levels of an air pollutant called particulate matter 2.5 -- particles so tiny, they're about 15 times thinner than a strand of hair. 

Experts say particulate matter can cause a host of health problems, including lung cancer, and levels found in Commerce City for the first six months of this year have exceeded the EPA's proposed health standard. They were at or near the current health limits --far above the levels measured at other comparable monitors in Boulder and Longmont.

"We're seeing higher levels at Commerce City than at any of the locations where we're monitoring," said Detlev Helmig, an air quality monitoring researcher working with Cultivando. "There's a higher frequency of concentration spikes. The concentration spikes are often higher than at the other locations."

But that's just one pollutant. The Commerce City site is measuring for 50 total different toxics, according to Gonzalez. 

Across the board, levels of each pollutant tend to be higher in general in Commerce City than in other monitors in the northern Denver metro area, Gonzalez says.

"It makes me feel upset, makes me feel concerned, and it just motivates us to continue to do this monitoring on behalf of those who are impacted here," she told CBS News Colorado.

Helmig says the monitoring is also measuring wind direction, and the impact winds have on pollutant levels. He hopes doing so can help better pinpoint potential pollution sources.

"I've rarely seen such a clear dependency of elevated concentrations, wind direction, and wind speed," Helmig said.

But the data is yet to prove that health issues in the community are directly caused by any particular emissions or pollutants. Scientists working with Cultivando are now planning to launch a community diary program that will track health symptoms with pollution spikes.

"It's going to be going on for quite some years," said Wilma Subra, a researcher working on the Cultivando community health study.

Subra is a technical advisor to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. She says she has done similar studies in other communities in the U.S. 

"So it's cause and effect and you actually document it, and then you're able to go to the agencies or the company and say we need to have something done to protect the health of the community," Subra said. 

In the meantime, residents like Madrid are hoping the state will impose stricter regulations on nearby industry.

"What's the point of having a great economy if we're all poisoned," Madrid said. "I think there are opportunities for these businesses, these corporations, to move. I think that it is important to put people's lives first before profit."

Suncor issued the following statement to CBS Colorado:

As the Commerce City monitoring site is in an industrial area with multiple emission sources, air monitoring data is likely to differ from monitors positioned in more suburban areas like Boulder and Longmont.

Suncor is supportive of all air monitoring efforts, which is why we voluntarily launched a community air monitoring program – Commerce City North Denver (CCND) Air Monitoring – more than a year ago. As part of the program, independent health scientists conduct health risk assessments based on the data collected, using federal and state guidelines. To date, data gathered from CCND Air Monitoring has not indicated any acute or chronic public health concerns. This is true for compounds measured individually and cumulatively as a group. Specifically, concentrations for all compounds measured have remained below acute and chronic health guideline values since the program launched in August 2021.

More information about the program, including detailed air quality data analysis, is available at in English and in Spanish.

We value our relationships with Cultivando and Boulder A.I.R., which operates and maintains Cultivando's community air monitoring program. We are pleased to have hosted Cultivando and Boulder A.I.R. staff as well as other community leaders at educational sessions to share information about CCND Air Monitoring and receive their feedback. We plan to continue working together with the community to listen and address environmental concerns in a data-driven and collaborative way. 

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued this statement to CBS Colorado: 

We are grateful for our collaborative work with Cultivando and are committed to developing even more partnerships. The data Cultivando has collected will be helpful as we continually evaluate our strategies to improve air quality in the area. 

While the fixed monitor in Commerce City provides critical information, it cannot pinpoint where the emissions are coming from, and we know there are multiple sources of pollution in that community. We have prioritized reducing air pollution in this community and any others that experience a disproportionate pollution burden. It's also important to be mindful of the health advisory levels for each of the pollutants to determine if the emissions detected are below, at or above health advisory levels.  

Colorado is working on numerous strategies to further protect air quality in all communities across Colorado. 

There are many sources of air pollution that impact North Denver and Commerce City, including busy interstates and several industry operations, including the Suncor refinery. Suncor is one of the most highly regulated sources of pollution in the state, and CDPHE is working on even more ways to hold the facility accountable:

  • CDPHE has conducted numerous rulemakings to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to implement the Greenhouse Gas Roadmap and several recent laws. Some of these rulemakings address industrial facilities like Suncor and require emissions reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and often result in the co-benefit of reducing localized air pollutants from the facilities as well.

  • In particular, Suncor is currently within the scope of regulations being developed known as the Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Energy Management for Manufacturers (GEMM) II regulations that will require industrial facilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20%.

  • Recent legislation requires Suncor to start fenceline monitoring along its perimeter by January 1, 2023. We held a special Spanish language session with Cultivando to get feedback on the draft Suncor fenceline monitoring plan back in March.  That same legislation requires three other facilities in Colorado to begin fenceline monitoring by January 1, 2024.  The law also requires us at CDPHE to increase our community-based monitoring efforts in Commerce City and Pueblo. We held a special Spanish language session with Cultivando to get feedback on our draft community monitoring plan ror the area a few weeks ago.

  • In addition to Suncor's new Title V permits, the division has taken significant steps in recent years to improve operations at the refinery, enhance public health and environmental protections, and work with the local community.

We also have partnered with the EPA to reduce the burdens of pollution in disproportionately impacted communities by coordinating on enforcement and compliance assurance efforts. Our goal for this agreement is to reduce pollution burdens and improve public health. The agreement between the EPA and CDPHE focuses on three areas: 

  • Strategically targeting inspections in disproportionately impacted communities. 

  • Collaborating on enforcement and compliance assurance actions to reduce pollution burdens. 

  • Creating equitable opportunities for disproportionately impacted communities to learn and engage with us about enforcement and compliance issues.

We also are inviting public participation in developing new requirements to protect disproportionately impacted communities. That includes communities of color, low-income communities, and areas overburdened by pollution. The requirements will impact how the Air Pollution Control Division handles new or modified sources of pollution in disproportionately impacted communities. The division will use community feedback while developing rules to meet new requirements under Colorado's Environmental Justice Act.

We are committed to meeting people where they are, and are scheduling numerous listening sessions so we can hear from residents about their concerns.

In August, the Environmental Protection Agency informed the air division that it had approved Suncor's Plant 2 Title V permit. Per federal law, the division must grant a Title V permit if it meets all legal requirements. After the EPA approves, the division's procedure is to issue a Title V permit with an effective date of the first day of the following month. Therefore, the division issued Suncor's Plant 2 Title V permit with an effective date of September 1, 2022.

The public comment period for Suncor's Plants 1 and 3 Title V permit closed on July 13, 2022. The division proactively opened the permit for feedback for more than 60 days to allow the community more time to review it and share questions or concerns. The statutory requirement for a permit's public comment period is 30 days. The division is still working on completing written responses to feedback. Once those responses are complete, the division will submit the Plants 1 and 3 permit to the EPA for a 45-day review period. If the EPA approves, the division will follow the same procedure described in the last paragraph and issue the Plants 1 and 3 permit with an effective date of the first day of the following month. 

Although public comment for the Suncor Title V permits are closed, there are several ways for the public to weigh in on our air quality work in the area. Right now, we are seeking feedback through the following ways:

  • The public can give feedback on our Environmental Justice Action Task Force's recommendations to the state legislature. 

  • CDPHE and the EPA are seeking feedback on their workplan to implement their Memorandum of Understanding on Environmental Justice in enforcement and compliance. 

  • We also are inviting public participation in developing new requirements to protect disproportionately impacted communities. 

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