DENVER — As Colorado lawmakers return to the state Capitol this week, protecting the environment remains a top priority, said Governor Jared Polis in his State of the State address.
Lawmakers' plans include continuing to roll out the state’s Environmental Justice Act, which they passed more than two years ago.
The Environmental Justice Act was meant to protect Coloradans’ right to clean air and water, especially in disproportionately impacted communities suffering the most from pollution. But Colorado needs to do more to effectively help communities and the environment, according to advocates who served on the Environmental Justice Action Task Force, which helped Colorado create a plan for implementing the law.
“There's been a lot of really great intention set. There's been a lot of written promises,” said Reneé Millard-Chacon, who served on the task force and is now a Commerce City City Council member. "I am from communities that need action today.”
She wants to see Polis and legislators focus on funding solutions for problems linked to environmental harm, such as housing and health care.
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Millard-Chacon said she’s grateful Colorado is starting to lay out a plan, including creating an Environmental Justice office within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). But legislators haven’t set aside enough funding to build up that office with sufficient staff and air quality monitoring, she said.
When it comes to the task force’s recommendations made in 2022, the CDPHE recently sent a progress report to Polis. The agency said it has made “significant progress,” completing 17 out of the 44 recommendations, with another 19 either in progress or ongoing, and the rest expected to be supported by the governor’s budget request for the upcoming years.
Polis is also touting progress made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But Millard-Chacon worries the state may be “patting themselves on the back too soon.”
“We're putting it in legislation, we're writing it down. Writing is not enough. We need the duality of action,” she said.
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Although “this legislative session feels hopeful” with the promise of new legislation to further implement the Environmental Justice Act, Millard-Chacon said she remains worried that lobbyists and legislators will water down bills despite consensus from impacted communities.
“It leaves our communities absolutely just tired and drained to come back the next year because nobody's listening,” she said. "If we have a governor that doesn't take the leadership to rise above all of that, the climate impacts are not only going to worsen, our communities are going to be erased.”
Ean Thomas Tafoya, who also served on the Environmental Justice Action Task Force, said Colorado is making progress in launching environmental justice and equity programs within agencies like CDPHE, the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Natural Resources. But the state still isn't sufficiently protecting highly-polluted communities like those in Commerce City and Greeley, he said.
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Tafoya leads the environmental advocacy group, GreenLatinos Colorado, which is suing Colorado over its implementation of the Environmental Justice Act.
“We decided for the first time ever to sue for a bad outcome," he said.
In the lawsuit, filed alongside 350Colorado and Earthworks, the environmental groups argue that the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission’s rule defining impacted communities "fails to ensure that residents of communities that have long borne a disproportionate share of adverse human and environmental effects from polluting industries receive the protections provided by the Environmental Justice Act.”
Tafoya said, “By creating two different types of communities, we're actually splitting who deserves protection” and hopes the lawsuit will urge the state to create “one system that protects the people who've been the most overburdened.”
GreenLatinos is also urging Polis and the Colorado Energy Office to change course on another recently passed rule regarding greenhouse gas emissions known as GEMM 2.
Under GEMM 2, “a company can say it's too expensive or too hard for them to change their practices to reduce pollution,” Tafoya said. Instead of cutting emissions, polluters "can just put money into a fund,” he said.
“We're tired of our communities getting scraps and pennies. We want actual reductions in pollution because that's what's going to improve their health,” he said.
Moving forward, Tafoya said environmental groups like his are eager to partner with the governor, legislators and state agencies when possible.
“And where we have reached a point of no pass is where we're going to exercise our tools, whether that's lawsuits, marketing, legislation,” he said.