State health officials say they’re trying to stay the course on regulating air and water pollution during the COVID-19 pandemic even as the Environmental Protection Agency backs off enforcing many of the nation’s environmental laws.
“At a time when everyone in Colorado is rallying to fight the spread of a serious respiratory illness, it would be unacceptable for us to allow companies to emit more pollutants into our air and water,” said John Putnam, director of environmental programs at CDPHE, in a statement.
Environmental advocates have been calling on the state to halt issuing new emissions permits during the COVID-19 outbreak because air pollution can make respiratory issues worse. COVID-19 attacks the lungs and so far has killed 150 people in Colorado. The state has recommended an open burning ban but not stopped issuing industrial pollution permits, saying it doesn’t have the data to justify such decisions.
“If we were to do that without adequate data, we would expose ourselves to extensive litigation that may not achieve environmental proposes,” Putnam told The Colorado Independent.
Officials with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sent a letter to companies last Friday stating their plans to continue enforcement of laws aimed at preventing emissions of planet-warming greenhouse and toxic gases and water pollution. The letter comes after the EPA, headed by Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, notified companies on March 26 it was halting enforcement of air quality laws and giving states flexibility for their own enforcement. The EPA guidance came after the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas industry group, sent a letter to President Donald Trump on March 20 asking his administration to waive testing and reporting requirements for operations, which includes checking and repairing equipment leaking planet-warming methane. “The oil and natural gas industry needs to maintain safe and reliable operations, taking into consideration that there may be limited personnel capacity to manage the full scope of the current regulatory requirements,” the letter stated.
The Colorado Air Pollution Control Division is asking companies to let it know of any issues with compliance before failing to collect samples and submit records, for example. So far, according to Putnam, companies have not raised any compliance issues with meeting core effluent or emissions requirements. He said the state has had some inquiries about signatures and physical records that people are having trouble getting during the stay-at-home order.
Separately, Putnam said the state has had difficulty collecting water samples at schools, which are closed, among other hurdles during the pandemic. Putnam said this has not caused any environmental concerns for health officials.
The pandemic is slowing down the Colorado Department of Public Health’s efforts to write some new rules and regulations. A rulemaking hearing aimed at curbing pollution from oil and gas wells was postponed from April 16 to June. Another hearing to provide cities and water managers additional guidance on how the state is planning to use its authority to regulate toxic PFAS chemicals in Colorado’s water was postponed from April 13 to July.
Due to the inability to conduct face-to-face meetings during the pandemic, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which oversees the industry in Colorado, said last month it has postponed drafting new rules aimed at changing the agency’s mission and wellbore integrity standards. The new rules are required after lawmakers in 2018 passed Senate Bill 181, which put in place a process to make the state’s oil and gas rules more protective of public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife.
Meanwhile, Suncor, the Calgary-based company that operates the Suncor refinery in Commerce City, has shut down Plant 2 at the refinery. A malfunction inside the plant’s “fluidized catalytic cracking unit” caused an orange plume of pollution to spew over the region on March 17 following a similar “operational upset” on Dec. 11, 2019. The state has requested a meeting with the plant operators to discuss the issue prior to Suncor firing up Plant 2 again.
The facility, one of Colorado’s largest sources of air pollution, is near Elyria-Swansea, a majority Latino neighborhood with some of the highest asthma rates in the county. People with asthma are considered vulnerable to COVID-19, the diseases caused by the coronavirus that can lead to respiratory illness.