DENVER — Colorado is taking steps to address environmental injustices in communities experiencing more than their fair share of pollution. Beyond government meetings and rule-making, the state is giving grants to affected communities to take action themselves.
In Denver’s Elyria-Swansea — the most polluted neighborhood in the U.S. — the community has long recognized the problem.
“One of the moms in the community told me Suncor [Oil Refinery] is the fire-breathing dragon that steals the breath and the life away from my babies,” said Harmony Cummings, a former oil and gas industry worker who now advocates for environmental justice through the Green House Connection Center, a community space that pairs the arts with education.
Cummings said when she looks out at polluting industries like Suncor, "I see the fire spitting out of it. I see the dragon.” But she also sees solutions.
Cummings is grateful for the support, although she recognizes the limitations of the money.
“A million dollars is not even enough to buy a house in the city of Denver today. So how is that enough for our whole state to participate meaningfully?” she asked.
She compares those grants to the profits earned by Colorado’s oil and gas industry last year: $25 billion.
“We use our air, our water and our land resources to make a lot of money for some people while we're really harming the future for our children and causing damage here,” Cummings said.
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Still, as Colorado prepares to give another $1 million to community groups for the upcoming year, Cummings is hopeful these investments will be a good start.
Joel Minor, the public health department’s environmental justice program manager, said the grants can “really be used for a lot of different purposes to avoid, minimize, mitigate or even measure pollution, as well as helping communities really equitably participate in decision-making processes.”
"We are just so excited by communities bringing forward their own ideas for how they can improve the environment where they live,” Minor said.
The state will accept applications until December 19. The grants are funded using penalties paid by air pollution violators.
While some community groups have faced hurdles getting other grants, including ones from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Minor said “making the grant application process inclusive, straightforward and easy for applicants is our top priority.”
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As one of the first recipients, the Green House Connection Center received just over $125,000 to lead a “Pollution and Solutions” program aimed at building community solidarity and empowering the community to participate in government processes.
For example, the Green House helped mothers from the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood participate in Colorado’s recent rule-making on pollution.
“We were able to have the same seat at the table as the Suncor Refinery and Cargill and the other industrial groups,” Cummings said.
The Green House also uses the funding to host events.
“We have elements of dance and music at [the events] while we also give the education,” Cummings said.
They’re inviting the community to connect with water through a tea-making party Friday, where they will also distribute water filters.
“If we're going to give people tea, we have to give them a way to have clean water,” she said.
To share those resources, the Green House is partnering with the Black Parents United Foundation, which also received one of the first environmental justice grants.
“Me and Harmony both had the opportunity to get this funding, and now we're taking the funding and we're pulling together,” said Nikie Wells, who directs environmental justice initiatives for the Black Parents United Foundation and serves on the Green House’s board of directors. “It's easier to work together."
Wells hopes Colorado will continue increasing its funding for frontline community workers, and that those groups will collaborate to make best use of the support. Her experience exemplifies how the most affected can also make the most change.
"I'm asthmatic. I have two kids in my household who is (sic) asthmatic,” Wells said. “So just bringing the awareness and trainings and resources to the community around air toxins and childhood asthma was very important to us. It hit really personal."
Wells has been a teacher for more than 20 years, which has grown her passion for educating young people.
"When I'm hearing these kids talk about climate crisis and action, they're ready,” she said. “They're aware of what's going on, and it’s got my brain twirling. It’s got my blood pumping.”
She hopes enthusiasm for change continues catching on in communities like hers, with support from Colorado’s government agencies.
"Each neighborhood is different. Each neighborhood needs change,” Wells said. “We want y'all to know that your voice is important.”