COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — It's been more than two years since Colorado passed the Environmental Justice Act, establishing the right for all Coloradans to clean air and water. But for environmental activists who live near areas were pollution is worse in the Front Range, the state isn't keeping up with the goals as outlined in the law.
Such is the case for people who live near the Dahlia Trailhead in Commerce City, where the path winds along the Sand Creek and beside polluters like the Suncor Refinery.
“A lot of our Black and brown communities are placed in these areas that are disproportionately impacted by air quality,” said Shaina Oliver, an activist with Moms Clean Air Force who lives northeast of Denver in an area that was once a superfund site and where highway expansions and industries pollute the air.
Oliver is also a tribal member of the Navajo Nation, and said the rights of Native Americans are undermined once they move away from reservations.
“Native Americans that move from the reservations to the urban cities, we are placed in these disproportionately impacted areas,” she said. “A lot of our rights get undermined because we're off the reservation.”
Oliver lives with asthma, as did her grandparents, and now her son. That’s why she started advocating for Colorado to pass more environmental justice laws and make progress implementing them.
“We've been fighting for our right to clean air and our right for our children to sleep, sound and safe, and wake up the next morning and not struggle to breathe,” she said.
Oliver is among the community activists pushing for “accountability and leadership” from the Colorado legislature — advocacy that led the state to pass an Environmental Justice Act in 2021, which recognized that some communities are disproportionately impacted by environmental harms like air pollution.
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The Environmental Justice Act established that “all Coloradans have the right to clean air, clean water, and they have the right to make decisions about environmental issues that are going to impact them directly,” said Patricia Garcia-Nelson, who lives in a disproportionately impacted community in Weld County and advocates with the group GreenLatinos.
As Colorado implements the new law, the state’s top public health agency adopted new rules and is launching an expert panel to develop recommendations on how to implement those rules to better protect communities experiencing “more than their fair share of environmental exposure.”
The Air Quality Control Commission, or AQCC, held the panel’s first meeting this week, and will continue to meet monthly through next spring. Coloradans may share public comments during the meetings and attend public information sessions on February 6 and May 21, 2024. The experts will talk through technical details such as which technologies to use for monitoring air pollutants, where to place those air monitors and how to report the air pollution data collected.
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“People's lived experience is extremely important because these rules are supposedly helping people like us,” said Garcia-Nelson.
But she and Oliver worry these state-held meetings are inaccessible because of the times when they are held and the way issues are discussed.
“I really commend community members that do get involved in making public comment on these things because it's not easy,” Oliver said. “It's a lot of jargon, a lot of language not commonly used by community members and working class people.”
During the panel’s first meeting, only one person shared public comments.
"This was supposed to right the wrongs that has (sic) been done to our communities for decades and decades,” Garcia-Nelson said. “I do not feel like the community voices are being heard. I do not feel like the state is going far enough.”
Garcia-Nelson said Colorado continues “issuing permits for hundreds of industries to pollute,” through what she called a “pay to pollute system.”
Although Colorado has some of the strictest regulations in country, Garcia-Nelson said the biggest problem has been implementation.
“We have seen zero enforcement,” she said, raising frustrations that operators with repeated violations have never been shut down and emissions remain high.
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“Despite all these regulations, despite all these panels, and all these discussions that we're having, at the end of the day, it's still business as usual,” she said.
Garcia-Nelson and Oliver both used the Suncor Refinery in Commerce City as an example.
“They have literally been polluting this community for 100 years, and nothing has changed,” Garcia-Nelson said.
Even as Colorado takes steps to recognize the impacts of air pollution on communities like Commerce City, “we haven't seen strong leadership to live up to our policies that we advocated for," Oliver said.
“Until something changes, until we see real reductions, these words mean absolutely nothing,” Garcia-Nelson said.