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EPA knocks Colorado's system for issuing air quality permits to minor polluters like drilling sites, gold mines

Noelle Phillips, The Denver Post on

Published in Science & Technology News

DENVER — The Environmental Protection Agency found “important concerns” with the way Colorado regulators review and issue permits to minor polluters such as mines, asphalt plants and oil and gas drilling rigs, and those problems risked further damage to the state’s already poor air quality, according to a 309-page report released last week.

The report — in response to a whistleblower complaint filed in 2021 by employees at the state’s Air Pollution Control Division — determined those charged with regulating how much pollution spews into the state’s air were lax in how they assessed the potential for emissions and that they failed to properly document how they made their decisions.

The Air Pollution Control Division issued air permits even when analyses indicated emissions would violate air quality standards and were not compliant with a state plan to improve air quality, the EPA found.

In one of the four air permits reviewed by the federal agency, the investigation found that the division divided one permit into two smaller projects, which meant a Teller County gold mine could meet a lower threshold for pollution and avoid more strict regulation.

The EPA’s report listed six recommendations for improvement while acknowledging that the Air Pollution Control Division already has started making some changes. The EPA wants the Air Pollution Control Division, which falls under the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, to keep more complete records and better document how it makes decisions on its permitting standards.

It also wants the agency to go back and review 11 permits that were flagged by the whistleblowers to see if they were properly issued and make necessary changes, the EPA report said. The state has until Oct. 21 to respond to the EPA’s findings.

 

Kevin Bell, a lawyer for the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which filed the complaint on behalf of the whistleblowers, said the permitting problems were irresponsible and put the state further behind in its efforts to improve air quality.

Foul air continues to cause health problems, especially for people with asthma and other respiratory problems. Already this year, the EPA announced plans to downgrade Denver and the northern Front Range to “severe” violators of federal ozone standards, which would mean higher gas prices and more permitting for industries such as oil and gas, trucking and mining.

“The reason the air quality is so bad now is because of the policy that has been in place for a decade,” Bell said. “It’s been building up for decades and it’s going to take just as long to fix it.”

In 2021, three Air Pollution Control Division employees filed a whistleblower complaint to the EPA’s inspector general that accused the agency of ignoring the state’s plan to better regulate air polluters in order to lower greenhouse gas emissions and ozone pollutants.

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