Jill Hunsaker Ryan, public health and environment department head, talks environmental justice and air quality

Hunsaker Ryan: "My philosophy is that we hold polluters accountable."

Jill Hunsaker Ryan at the Colorado Department of Public Health in Denver on Dec. 10, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)
Jill Hunsaker Ryan at the Colorado Department of Public Health in Denver on Dec. 10, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

Jill Hunsaker Ryan started her career in public health more than two decades ago. She worked on and off for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s office of health disparities and, for five years, in the public health department for Eagle County, where she also served two terms as a county commissioner. In 2016, she helped launch Colorado Communities for Climate Action, or CC4CA, an environmental advocacy organization working to slash greenhouse gas emissions. 

So perhaps it is no surprise that Hunsaker Ryan, now the executive director of Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment, has made air quality the agency’s top priority, positioning it at the center of a longstanding battle between the state’s oil and gas industry and environmentalists and concerned residents who live in the oil and gas patch. 

That focus on reducing emissions in the name of public health is both a matter of her experience and of timing. In January, Gov. Jared Polis selected Hunsaker Ryan to lead the 1,400-person agency as the oil and gas wars reached a fever pitch. Just a few months earlier, in November 2018, the industry defeated the third ballot attempt to increase setbacks between homes and wells. That same election saw Polis, a Democrat with a bent toward more oil and gas industry regulation, take office. Democrats also won control of the state Senate and kept the House. By April of this year, Polis had signed into law Senate Bill 181, which called for more stringent oil and gas regulations. Over the last couple of months, the Air Quality Control Commission and the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission tightened regulations on the industry. The state has now adopted requirements for removal and location reporting of flow lines — one of which caused the deadly explosion in Firestone in 2017 —  and more frequent inspections to detect gas leaks and make repairs.

These new rules come on top of a decision in December by the Environmental Protection Agency to designate the northern Front Range as in “serious” violation of the Clean Air Act, which will trigger new permit restrictions for oil and gas development. The former Hickenlooper administration blocked that designation but welcomed by the Polis administration, including Hunsaker Ryan. 

She’ll admit that she doesn’t just view cutting smog and reducing methane emissions through the public health lens. Hunsaker Ryan, who grew up in Arvada, has severe asthma and says she can feel the difference in the air when she travels from her home in Edwards, just off I-70 on the west side of Vail Pass, to Denver. The northern Front Range region has failed federal standards for unhealthy ground-level ozone for the last 15 years. 

“I can tell when it’s a high ozone day. That’s one of my triggers,” Hunsaker Ryan told The Colorado Independent. “It does give me empathy for people who struggle with asthma, who do have triggers due to air pollution and who might not have access to health care.” 

To help carry out the requirements in Senate Bill 181 and the Clean Air Act, the Polis administration is asking lawmakers for more money to hire nearly 20 new employees within CDPHE, including oil and gas inspectors. The agency also has one oil and gas toxicologist answering hundreds of health complaints from residents who live oil and gas sites. The administration is asking for money to hire another. 

This transformation comes as CDPHE also wrestles with a number of other emerging public health dilemmas: Colorado’s last-in-the-nation ranking for childhood immunizations; a hepatitis A outbreak among people living homeless in Denver; PFAS, a toxic chemical considered non-biodegradable found in anything from food packaging to firefighting foam, in Colorado’s water supplies; a rise in suicide among Colorado’s youth; the deadly grip of the opioid epidemic; and half-a-dozen recent cases of lung illnesses linked to vaping nicotine and THC. 

The Colorado Independent sat down with Hunsaker Ryan earlier this month to talk about the agency and her priorities as she prepares to enter her second year on the job. We met in the office of her senior advisor, John Putnam, an environmental attorney specializing in the Clean Air Act. Hunsaker Ryan generally steered clear of detailed answers and deferred technical questions about regulatory policy to Putnam. She grew most animated when talking about the complexity of environmental justice issues. 

The following interview includes phone and in-person conversations and has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

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You’ve had a long career in advocacy, public health and public service. Was there a particular experience you think prepared you for this job? 

My role as Eagle County commissioner. Just seeing the changes in our environment living in a winter resort-based community. What the warming climate is doing to those communities has really been palpable. Whether it’s drought, whether it’s a ski season with a much shorter number of days, whether it’s a ski season with so little snow that the ski industry is primarily making man-made snow, or whether it’s being able to mountain bike year-round in a community at 7,000 to 8,000 feet when we used to have snow on the ground for six months out of the year. The climate feels more like Denver. Eagle County had a really devastating fire in 2018 after having such a light snowpack. It almost took out two towns. And that was the summer the air quality was so poor all over this state because of so many fires. We’re at an elevation of 10,000 feet at Vail Pass all the way down to 6,000 to 7,000 feet. We were just in a county that wouldn’t experience fires until recently. The Lake Christine Fire burned for six weeks. And we were holding community meetings almost every night as people were evacuated. The trauma and devastation left on that community, from scars on the hillside, are just a constant reminder. The fire coming right up and burning some homes. Firefighters’ lives put at risk to save a community. Climate change is so palpable to us.

What are some of your priorities looking ahead to 2020? 

Operational excellence, health equity and environmental justice, particularly for individuals or communities that are disproportionately impacted by pollution, contaminates, and poor health outcomes. Air quality is absolutely a priority for me. We’ve just created a state action plan around PFAS. There isn’t a federal standard. It’s a health advisory level. What we have planned in this state is to start some surveillance activities, testing and mapping PFAS. I think immunization has to be a high priority. There has (also) been a lot of misinformation, which has created vaccine hesitancy among parents so either they are not vaccinating or they are not sure if they should.

The governor has made clear he is “pro-choice” on whether parents should vaccinate their kids. [During the 2019 legislative session, he threatened to veto House Bill 1312, which aimed to increase childhood vaccination rates, but which would have required parents seeking personal exemptions to apply in person to local health departments. Polis told Colorado Matters that he saw that as heavy-handed, potentially creating more distrust in vaccinations.] The administration seems to be sending out a mixed message on this issue. How do you reconcile that? 

Well I think that he’s been clear on his position about vaccinations and that he believes in vaccinations and particularly, from a public health standpoint, he feels that parents should have the option to choose that for their kids. I think our role at CDPHE is to help parents understand that vaccines are safe and the risk of not vaccinating children in terms of hospitalizations and, in some cases, even death. There has been a lot of misinformation out there that vaccines are not safe or that they cause autism. There is just no scientific evidence of that whatsoever. I think social media has just been, unfortunately, an efficient vehicle to spread misinformation. Not only do we want to educate parents, but we also want to make access easy and make sure that families do have access to vaccinations regardless of their ability to pay. 

How has the governor’s pro-choice message made it harder for your campaign calling on parents to vaccinate their kids? 

If you do away with the personal exemptions and a parent really does not want to vaccinate their kids, they are still not going to get them vaccinated. They will go get a medical exemption or a religious exemption. So it’s not really a full-proof strategy anyway. California is a good example. It did away with the personal exemptions and then saw medical exemptions just explode. … The governor has provided more dollars for immunizations in his budget for this year and subsequent years.

health impacts. Elyria-Swansea
Suncor’s oil refinery north of Elyria-Swansea on Aug. 9, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

Tell me more about your environmental justice priority. 

There are communities and neighborhoods in Colorado that have disproportionately poor health outcomes compared to the rest of the state and at the same time, you see that they are the same communities that may have cumulative impacts from pollution. They may live in neighborhoods that we consider food deserts, meaning they don’t have grocery stores nearby and simply just convenience stores. They may have a disproportionately high number of liquor stores. They may lack sidewalks or amenities to get people outside and exercising. So the neighborhood they live in is just not designed to promote health or encourage health. The lower-income neighborhoods where folks might not have access to health insurance also might be more likely to be food deserts and also are more likely to have a superfund site nearby or might be close to a highway where they can have PM10 (a type of particulate matter) exposure or exposure to multiple types of pollutants or contaminants. I think we have to be very intentional about working with those communities. In public health, we always start with a public health assessment. What are their rates of cancer, or heart disease or diabetes or injuries or suicide or homicide? What does their health data look like and what are some of the root causes so that we can create strategies that can get at those root causes? 

In [the Denver neighborhood of] Elyria-Swansea, for example, you have an oil refinery, Suncor, and then you have I-70. So that’s the root cause for the disproportionately high asthma rates, right? What do you do in that situation? 

I mean, yeah. You know, there are some things that we can’t control in that situation. We make sure they have access to a full range of health care options, benefits, smoking cessation classes, or healthier foods. 

But that’s not addressing the root cause.  

Well, it depends on what you’re talking about. If you’re talking about asthma, you’re talking about air quality. But I would submit that in these environmental justice neighborhoods, you’re going to see health issues in almost every health outcome you look at. We are doing a community health assessment in that neighborhood as part of a settlement with [the Colorado Department of Transportation]. It’s about how do we make things better. I’m an asthmatic. And I think my medication is $300 per month, but I have great health insurance, right. If I went four days without my medication I would be in the ER. I have symptoms all the time. But I’m able to manage it. I have a specialist I go see and, if I get into trouble, I’ve got some really super medication. I can control it because I have some of the tools that maybe other folks might not have, but maybe we could help get for them. 

On Dec. 11, the Suncor refinery spewed ash over Commerce City. Last year, it exceeded its permit cap for toxic cyanide emissions, and it has violated other state permit requirements dozens of times. What are you going to do about that? [Following an inspection in May, the agency, on Dec. 13, issued the company a 56-page compliance advisory notice of possible permit violations. It is awaiting a response from Suncor before deciding whether to issue a compliance order, which could include fines or permit revocations. The list of illegal activities includes failing to burn off cancer-causing benzene emissions, repeatedly exceeding emissions caps for the toxic gases hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide and repair work that was delayed or performed in a way that led to breakdowns and preventable emissions.] 

My philosophy is that we hold polluters accountable. I think our enforcement actions, in general, need to be meaningful enough so that the industry has an incentive to put whatever controls are available to them in place to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Gov. Jared Polis signed SB-181, a landmark bill overhauling the state’s oil and gas regulations, into law on April 16, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

Gov. Jared Polis has made it clear he wants to crack down on oil and gas emissions. And Senate Bill 181 requires it. You’re making steps to do so, and you have brought on people like John Putnam to help make that happen. Other staff left. [The former deputy director of the Air Pollution Control Division, Chris Clocasure, was an oil and gas attorney before he arrived at the agency and, in late 2018, left and is now working for the industry fighting regulations.] Yet, to do so, you will have to take on a $30 billion industry that for years has maintained considerable sway in Colorado and for years has fought regulations. How do you begin to take that on? 

It’s an exciting time in Colorado right now for air quality. I really think that we can make a difference. You mentioned some of the staff changes coming in and changes in leadership and changes perhaps in values and philosophies. What we’re really trying to focus on right now is trying to resource a division — the Air Pollution Control Division — which has been under-resourced for, I don’t know, 15 years, maybe longer. We’re going to actually double the number of inspectors and enforcement personnel. This is a good start. And now we’re looking are upgrading our technology in terms of air monitoring so we are able to further hold industry accountable. 

One of the criticisms of CDPHE has been its relationship with the oil and gas industry. What changes have you made within this agency to shift the state’s relationship with the industry? 

We have prioritized [air quality]. We have been very strategic in trying to get the division additional resources in terms of people and technology. [The Polis administration is asking state lawmakers for $2.4 million for more for staff, including oil and gas inspectors, and permission to eliminate a cap on how much the state can bill the power utilities Xcel and Tri-State for pollution at their coal-fired power plants.] We’re just taking action at such a high level to improve our air quality, that, culturally, people either have to get on board because this train is moving so fast, or they will probably find something else to do. 

Even so, since the new administration took office, the state has issued hundreds of air pollution permits in the nonattainment area, a northern Front Range region failing federal ground-level ozone standards. Why do you continue to issue permits that make the region’s poor air quality even worse? 

I don’t think we have the legal authority to just shut it down. But moving into “serious” nonattainment [the EPA designation of the state’s level of compliance with the Clean Air Act] gives us more tools. It gives us more regulatory tools especially for how we issue permits and what’s in those permits. That brings with it even more severe regulatory controls around our permitting and the amount of emissions that industry is allowed to emit. 

An oil rig outside the town of Erie. (Photo by Phil Cherner)

What did you make of the recent health study that found people who live within 2,000 feet of a drilling site may be exposed to concentrations of toxic emissions high enough to experience health impacts like nosebleeds, nausea and respiratory problems? [Hunsaker Ryan’s predecessor, Larry Wolk, dismissed concerns about the health impacts of oil and gas emissions, saying “we don’t see anything to be concerned with at this point in time” after a 2018 study found people living within 500 feet of wells are at risk of cancer.]

I think the health study was a good indication that we need to do more study. We are talking about strengthening our partnerships with academic institutions to be able to do more research. It’s an area that has been under-resourced that we are making a priority. 

What about the complaints people who live near oil and gas development have for years been reporting to the state, hundreds of which cite similar symptoms described in health study: nosebleeds, nausea, headaches, etc.? 

So we’re on this path to figure out what are the harmful health impacts and where they’re occurring. There’s a several-pronged approach to that. Upgrading our technology for air monitoring and being able to have better real-time air monitoring [such as continuous emissions monitors placed by the state or oil and gas companies near wells reporting data to the state]. We are in the process of hiring a toxicologist to focus exclusively on oil and gas. When we do our increased air monitoring we can translate that into potential health impacts and give us some policy guidelines around it.

What might those policies look like? 

Preventing emissions either from [the early] stages of development or by facility type. 

Nearly a year on the job at this point, what’s keeping you up at night? 

I think we need to be prepared for disease outbreaks, particularly ones where there is a vaccine and we can quickly mobilize. Some of the environmental issues: air quality or emergency contaminants, like PFAS. We will get a handle on this. This isn’t the first emergency contaminant that we have had to deal with. But these things don’t keep me up at night really because I feel like we’ve got staff and a plan to address them. 

This interview is part of a series of conversations with members of the Polis administration. Find our interview with Jeff Robbins, state’s top oil and gas regulator, here, Dean Williams, head of Corrections Department, here, Dan Gibbs, Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources head, here, Will Toor, here, and Kate Greenberg, Colorado’s ag commissioner, here.

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  1. It seems this article focuses narrowly on one issue–oil and gas emissions. Does the city have any plans to cut down the largest emitter of pollutants–vehicle transportation–in the future by possibly creating more public transportation and bike lanes? It seems we are ignoring the larges problem here, and more focusing on a scapegoat. Additionally, has the city or state considered the other side of the equation–planting trees to filter air? Denver and the front range have some of the lowest canopy coverage, and leaves a lot of room for improvement. This is really a mass balance question– we are simply putting too much pollution into the air, and the natural world is not able to filter it out!

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