A former Colorado air quality inspector speaks out

Jeremy Murtaugh, a former air quality inspector for the CDPHE who recently resigned out of frustration. (Photo by Ted Wood/The Story Group)
Jeremy Murtaugh, a former air quality inspector for the CDPHE who recently resigned out of frustration. (Photo by Ted Wood/The Story Group)

Jeremy Murtaugh worked for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as an air quality inspector for 12 years. “As goofy as it sounds, all I ever wanted to be was a regulator,” the 43-year-old father of two says. When he started his job, he says he felt like he was doing his job, which was to test oil and gas facilities for compliance to state laws and report failing companies to his bosses, who would take action.

Then, during former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration, Murtaugh said he noticed some subtle – and not so subtle – shifts as the current fracking boom was taking off. As more permits were approved, Murtaugh and his colleagues couldn’t begin to keep up with the number of wells coming on line. Even when they performed inspections and passed on findings to superiors about infractions, Murtaugh says the reports rarely led to meaningful sanctions on operators. The sheer number of oil wells being drilled around the state, he said, compared to the tiny number of inspectors – nine to oversee more than 53,000 wells – created a sense of lawlessness at times. “It was crazy out there,” he says.

Garry Kaufman, the director of the air quality monitoring section of CDPHE, responds that the Air Pollution Control Division has placed a priority on trying to work with operators to bring them into compliance. Colorado law relies primarily on industry cooperation and self-reporting, Kaufman says, but that doesn’t mean that inspectors’ reports are ignored.

In a cafe near his home in Lakewood, Murtaugh recounts his struggle with his decision to leave his job even though new political leadership – and a new governor – have signaled a willingness to be more protective of the state’s air quality. Murtaugh says he is still concerned that the oil and gas industry wields disproportionate power, even over the state public health department. Oil and gas companies contribute to the tax base that funds the state’s regulatory agencies. He says he worries that it will be difficult to change the Division’s ingrained culture, which he says has prioritized negotiating with operators instead of enforcing the law and levying meaningful penalties.

Murtaugh, a Minnesota native raised by a third-grade-teacher mother and college-professor father, moved to Colorado in 1999 after graduating from Notre Dame. He left the CDPHE because, he said, he could no longer pretend that he was able to do his job. He admits to having taken home some materials on a hard drive to protect himself, he says, against potential whistleblower actions, but his supervisors discovered it and asked him to return the documentation. He did, and submitted his resignation early this year. He did not share any unauthorized documents for this story. Murtaugh has since started consulting with public interest and environmental groups as an expert witness about industry and regulatory agency practices. He said he is thinking about becoming a high school chemistry teacher.

The CDPHE would not comment on “personnel matters,” but Jill Ryan, the incoming director, acknowledged that the culture of the agency may need to change. “People are going to be held accountable,” she says, both inside the agency and in industry. She says her initial discussions with CDPHE employees have led her to believe that “people within the Division are excited. Maybe they’ve felt oppressed in wanting to do more.”

Murtaugh says he wants people in the state to know that the reassurances they have received about the health department adequately overseeing oil and gas industry emissions have been overstated. “Nobody’s really looking” to track the amounts – or the impacts – of different toxic air pollutants and climate-altering gases, he says, since there are many stages of oil and gas production that fall outside of meaningful regulation from either the health department or the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. “It seems like it’s a purposeful effort to not answer the questions.”

Whether or not this is an intentional effort, current CDPHE leadership acknowledges that their inspection system has been under-resourced for decades, and much more needs to be done. But Murtaugh is not alone in wondering why there are so many gaps in what we know about air pollutant sources. Gabrielle Petron, a research scientist with the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division who has published multiple peer-reviewed scientific studies on Front Range air quality monitoring efforts, said that the lack of independent evaluation and auditing by outside experts is an ongoing problem. “Resources may be limited, but the lack of results means there is a need for increased accountability and transparency,” she says. Petron, who does not know Murtaugh, nonetheless agrees with him that Colorado has been falling short. The state, Petron said, “has the responsibility to document and if needed effectively address surface ozone pollution, air toxics exposure, and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Murtaugh is frustrated by what he sees as the state’s unwillingness to treat the oil and gas industry the same way it treats, say, gas stations or cement factories, much less how it regulates cars and drivers. He says that there was no “straw” that ended it for him, just a series of disappointments and obstacles to doing his job. “I always wanted to fight the good fight,” he says. “That was taken away, and I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

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