Colorado to hire independent investigator to probe air pollution allegations made in complaint

Applications due by May 10
denver pollution skyline emissions
Posted at 11:52 AM, Apr 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-27 13:52:01-04

DENVER – Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser is seeking to hire an independent investigator to look into whether employees at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment illegally issued air quality permits and falsified modeling data following a whistleblower complaint.

The independent legal team will be tasked with investigating allegations made to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inspector general by three CDPHE employees on March 30 in which they alleged they were directed not to perform some of their legally required duties, according to a request for information posted by the attorney general’s office.

The outside team will also perform a legal analysis of the CDPHE’s authority and discretion in meeting the state’s obligations as part of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards program, the letter says. Outside groups have called for an investigation in the wake of the complaint.

Whatever independent investigator is chosen for the job will also have to issue a public report on their findings once the investigation is complete. CPR News first reported on the request for information to hire an outside investigative team.

The investigators will be overseen by the Department of Law and staff who do not work with CDPHE, the letter states. The independent investigators will serve as Special Assistant Attorneys General in their role to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Proposals from firms wishing to take on the job are due by 5 p.m. on May 10. The state is asking for descriptions on how the firms plans to conduct the investigation, the people who would potentially work on the job, a fee proposal, information on whether the firm has a diversity and inclusion program and to disclose any relationships with the CDPHE that could create a conflict of interest.

The investigation stems from the 15-page whistleblower complaint filed by Rosendo Majano, DeVondria Reynolds and Bradley Rink in late March alleging the violations and abuse of authority.

The complaint claims on March 15, management within the CDPHE’s Air Pollution Control Division directed the employees to stop reviewing compliance standards for certain pollutants and particulate matter in order to speed up the approval of permits.

“In short, under this policy, permit applicants in Colorado no longer have to demonstrate that their proposed sources or modifications comply with these standards in order to get an air permit from CDPHE,” the complaint said.

“When the permitting office is allowed to simply issue permits to the extent that it wants regardless of whether or not they comply with the standards set in the Clean Air Act, then you’re never going be able to fix the air,” said Kevin Bell, staff counsel with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who is representing the three.

The CDPHE in a statement earlier this month said it could not comment on the specific complaint but added: “We are committed to transparency in our permitting and modeling processes and have been focused on enhancing both permitting and air quality monitoring to be even more protective of public and environmental health.”

The EPA said earlier this month it was coordinating with the inspector general to evaluate the complaint.

“Our coordination with the OIG, and the evaluation of any necessary actions or next steps, will focus on ensuring that CDPHE’s management of emission sources complies with the Clean Air Act and contributes to the attainment and maintenance of clean air standards in Colorado’s communities,” the agency said.

The governor’s office said it would conduct a full investigation into the matter and noted that the state was not violating state or federal laws with respect to modeling.

“There are no federal or state laws in place governing the threshold to have modeling done for minor source permitting,” a spokesperson for the governor’s office said earlier this month.

Some of the chemical pollutants cited by the whistleblowers are tied to ozone levels that have led the EPA to classify the Front Range ozone status as “serious” – downgraded from “moderate” in December 2019, partially at the governor’s request.