PRESS RELEASE

Colorado Orders Staff to Ignore Air Pollution Violations  

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For Immediate Release:  Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Contact:  Kevin Bell (240) 247-0298; Kirsten Stade kstade@peer.org

Colorado Orders Staff to Ignore Air Pollution Violations

Air Modelers Request Federal Intervention and Whistleblower Protection

Washington, DC — The entire air modeling staff for the State of Colorado contend that they are now directed to issue illegal permits, ignore violations, and refrain from verifying pollution emissions, according to a complaint filed today through Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The air pollutants at issue, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulates, drive unhealthy levels of ozone long plaguing Colorado’s Front Range.

The air permit modeling team within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) reveals a March 15, 2021 order from the Air Division Director to cease
checking for these criteria pollutants in existing and pending permits. Under this new policy, permit applicants no longer have to demonstrate that their facilities comply with air quality standards. This order also stymied a review of previous permits showing many violations.

Colorado’s Front Range, encompassing the nine counties around Denver, has been in violation of National Ambient Air Quality Standards, set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), since 2012.  Last year, Governor Jared Polis acknowledged the public health concerns by reclassifying the region as being in “serious” nonattainment, an action that should have resulted in more stringent enforcement, not less.

“Colorado’s critical air quality safeguards are being monkey wrenched by high level officials,” stated PEER Rocky Mountain Director Chandra Rosenthal, a former U.S. Department of Justice attorney. “How can air pollution standards be enforced if emissions are not verified?”

In their complaint to EPA’s Office of Inspector General (IG), the air permit modelers seek a performance review and audit of the CDPHE Air Division.  Colorado’s air program operates under a federal delegation with EPA funding. Deviation from EPA requirements can result in federal sanctions against the state, ranging from loss of funding to Colorado being stripped of its air permitting authority altogether.

PEER attorneys also wrote, on behalf of the air modelers, to CDPHE Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan pointing out that these disclosures of air pollution violations are covered by the Colorado Whistleblower Protection Act which forbids retaliation for reporting violations of law.  PEER requested to meet with Ms. Hunsaker Ryan.

Notably, CDPHE quietly removed the guidance document for air quality permits from the agency website in mid-March.  Nor was there any public notice of this major policy change.

“Colorado law assures state workers that they can report violations of law such as these without fear of official reprisal,” added Kevin Bell, staff counsel for PEER, a national law firm and organization dedicated to protecting environmental whistleblowers. “This is a case where speaking truth to power is the essence of public service.”

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Read the complaint to EPA’s Inspector General 

See letter to CDPHE Director 

View emails and records concerning new “no modelling” policy 

See the CDPHE policy that was removed after March 15