DENVER — You might know her as an actress, fitness guru or controversial Vietnam protester, but nowadays, Jane Fonda’s focus is on the environment. That’s what brought her to Denver and Commerce City, home to one of the most polluted zip codes in the United States.
At the Green House Connection Center, an environmental activist hub in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, Fonda joined local politicians, community activists and current and former Colorado officials on Thursday.
Her visit to Colorado comes after three weeks of traveling through the Gulf states of Texas and Louisiana to film a documentary about the oil and gas industry.
“I’ve been a climate activist for a long time,” Fonda said. But after learning about fracking’s effects on communities, "I stopped thinking about the climate, and I started thinking about people’s health,” she said.
“The fossil fuel industry isn't just the main cause of the climate crisis, which will affect everything that we do in life, including democracy, our ability to eat, clean air,” Fonda said. “It's also killing people.”
Fonda’s concerns are shared by many of the Coloradans who met with her.
“Colorado is one of the top producers in the country of oil and gas, so reforms have been long overdue,” said former Colorado State Senator Mike Foote, who helped pass a 2019 law that shifted the mission of the state’s top agency overseeing the oil and gas industry. The newly named Energy and Carbon Management Commission is now supposed to consider community impacts before approving new operations.
“Predictably, there’s been a lot of pushback from the industry,” Foote said. “Passing the bill and passing the policy is just the first step.”
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Jessica Campbell-Swanson, recently elected to the Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners, said local officials like her are leveraging that law to pass environmental protections beyond those set by the state.
“When there is political will, there is a way,” Campbell-Swanson said. “The state is looking out for the whole state, but it’s our responsibility to fight for our individual communities.”
Commerce City Mayor Steve Douglas said polluters like the Suncor Oil Refinery have made the air quality so poor it doesn’t meet federal standards. Douglas said he’s made it his mission to “make sure these industries do what they're supposed to do, and not continue to pollute and infect our community's health.”
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With local officials taking on a larger role in climate activism, Fonda said she is helping to fund political campaigns in local races through her Jane Fonda Climate PAC created two years ago. Shontel Lewis, recently elected to the Denver City Council, received support from Fonda’s political action committee.
“It’s up to people like you to fight,” Fonda told the group of politicians.
While the group talked, the smell of the Purina plant across the street and the sound of a passing train served as reminders of the industrial pollution in the area.
Fonda also heard from community activists like Harmony Cummings, who used to work for the oil and gas industry and now advocates for environmental justice. Cummings told Fonda about the efforts of grassroots groups like Save the Aurora Reservoir and the Globeville and Elyria Swansea Coalition.
“I’m so moved by your spirit,” Fonda said while wiping away tears. “It’s always important to know that in every community, there’s a warrior."
Fonda then boarded a bus for a driving tour through the Suncor Oil Refinery, which is surrounded by mainly Latino and low-income neighborhoods exposed to high-than-average levels of air and water pollution.
Lucy Molina, who lives nearby, called Suncor her “deadly neighbor.” Molina’s family has suffered from bloody noses, and her grandmother died from leukemia, which she believes is tied to the pollution.
Since December, the Suncor Refinery has reported more than a dozen malfunctions that contaminated the air above limits set by the federal government.
“We are a sacrifice zone,” Molina said.
Although Fonda has family who live in Denver and has visited the area over the years, she said she “didn't realize how dangerously polluted it is.”
“It's really impacting families, and the elected officials in Colorado have to serve the people that they were elected [by] rather than the corporations that are killing their constituency,” Fonda said.
After decades of activism, Fonda said she’s learned “that it's a long fight, and that we need to be persistent and stay with it and mobilize communities.”