View of Boulder, ColoradoEven as Colorado has reached the extreme status of “severe non-attainment” with federal air quality standards, the State of Colorado continues to issue hundreds of air pollution permits to polluting industries that push Colorado further out of compliance. Ignoring its own staff experts, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) refuses to fix permits that are out of compliance or to deny issuance of new permits that add to the already unhealthy levels of ozone choking Colorado’s Front Range.

In 2021, CDPHE’s entire air modeling unit staff, represented by PEER, called upon the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to intervene to halt illegal permitting practices. The whistleblowers offered 11 examples illustrating the types of problems they witnessed. Both the Colorado Attorney General and the EPA confirmed their charges and asked CDPHE to fix the problems. More than two years later, however, CDPHE has –

    • Yet to take final action against those11 illegal permits:
    • Still not addressed hundreds of other permits with the same problems; and
    • Failed to evaluate cumulative impacts during the permitting process.

Whistleblowers On the Front Lines

Dr. Detlev Helmig

University of Colorado in Boulder

Dr. Detlev Helmig had been conducting research that involved the real-time monitoring of pollution from the oil and gas industry, and his work was revealing pollution spikes. In April 2020, he was terminated from the University of Colorado and removed from several major projects centered on polar climate science.

Read more

PEER and Dr. Helmig believe his termination was a result of his ongoing monitoring work on the oil and gas industry in Colorado. Dr. Helmig’s company had also been given the contract for real-time monitoring of the Suncor oil refinery, to be paid for by the company’s settlement following the spike in hydrogen cyanide emissions in 2018 that exceeded their permitted 12.8-ton limit by 1.3 tons. On April 29, 2021, Dr. Helmig’s legal counsel sent a letter to the National Science Foundation regarding misrepresentations in CU Boulder’s “investigation” of Dr. Helmig.

Air Permit Modeling Team

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

On March 15, 2021, the Air Division Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) ordered the air permit modeling team to cease checking for certain criteria pollutants in existing and pending permits. The air pollutants at issue are sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulates, which can result in unhealthy levels of ozone.

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The Colorado Front Range—the area around Denver—has been in violation of National Ambient Air Quality Standards for these pollutants since 2012. The air pollutants at issue are sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulates, which can result in unhealthy levels of ozone. The Colorado Front Range—the area around Denver—has been in violation of National Ambient Air Quality Standards for these pollutants since 2012. Shortly after directing the modeling team not to check for said pollutants, CDPHE quietly removed its guidance document for air quality permits from the website. In response to the March 15 instruction, PEER filed a complaint on behalf of the air permit modeling staff with the US Environmental Protection Agency Office of the Inspector General seeking a performance review and audit of the CDPHE Air Division. PEER also sent a letter to the Executive Director of CDPHE that disclosures of air pollution violations are covered by the Colorado Whistleblower Protection Act.

In response to the OIG complaint, the Colorado Attorney General is seeking a Special Assistant Attorney General to conduct a narrow investigation of the improper non-enforcement by CDPHE. The investigation will only cover facts related to the allegations that permits were unlawfully issued, that CDPHE staff were ordered to falsify data in modeling reports, and what level of discretion CDPHE has under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards program. PEER is requesting that the scope of the investigation be expanded to include the designation and permitting processes for multiple coal-fired power plants and a gold mine. The request is related to a February 2 call for federal intervention to address ongoing violations of the Clean Air Act, particularly in light of the exacerbated impacts of COVID-19 on frontline communities harmed by air pollution.

Colorado Impacts

Suncor Oil Refinery

The Suncor Oil Refinery is seeking new air and water discharge permits from Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, but Air Division employees were directed not to model short-term pollution. Read More»

Interstate Expansions

Air pollution in Commerce City is made even worse by the ongoing expansion of Interstate 70 that broke ground in 2018. CDOT is also currently considering a proposed expansion of Interstate 270. Read More»

Xcel Power Plants

Air permits for the Cherokee Power Plant and Pawnee Generating Station were both issued under faulty air modeling and a disregard of multi-year emissions overages. Read More»

Gold and Fossil Fuel Mining

Several mines in Colorado received unlawful air permits that do not comply with National Ambient Air Quality Standards as a result of CDPHE leadership’s orders to staff to ignore or falsify emissions data. Read More»


EPA Rejects Air-Pollution Permits for Oil, Gas Wells in Colorado

Win for Clean Air Calls Into Question Effectiveness of Pollution Controls

Colorado’s Air Pollution Program Broken and Adrift

State’s Air Quality Worsens While Cosmetic Changes Ignore Core Problems

Petition to EPA – NO2 and SO2-NAAQS – 10-04-2023 (PDF)

DESCRIPTION: Petition for Rulemaking to Establish Increments for the 1-hour Nitrogen Dioxide and Sulfur Dioxide ...

More Oil and Gas Wells Illegally Permitted in Colorado

Conservation groups petition EPA to step in and protect air quality

Colorado’s Air Quality Doomed to Get Worse

Gutted Reform Bill and New Regs Offer Nothing to Stem Downward Spiral

Public Comment – Colorado Air Quality Permits – 05-04-2023 (PDF)

DESCRIPTION: Public comments on Colorado Minor Source NSR Modeling Guideline for Air Quality Permits, submitted ...

Gold Mine Expansion OK Shows Broken Air Permit Process

Colorado Refuses to Fix Major Underlying Flaws in Approving New Permit

Waste Incinerators’ Toxic Output Should Be Reported

Incinerator Chemical Releases Not Included in EPA Toxics Release Inventory

COMMENTARY | Suspend your disbelief—Minnesota Permitting Process Self-Corrects

An air pollution permit granted illegally in to a power plant in Minnesota has been suspended pending ...

COMMENTARY | Minnesota Agency Reverses Course on Illegal Permit

One Minnesota agency corrected its misstep and retracted a bad permit but time will tell if the others follow suit.

Letter to EPA Region 8 – Next Steps on Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment – 11-11-2022 (PDF)

DESCRIPTION: Letter to EPA Region 8 Administrator KC Becker requesting meeting on Colorado Department of Public ...

Colorado Balks at EPA Ozone Reducing Recommendations

State Resists Reforms Identified by Whistleblowers and Confirmed by EPA

EPA Validates Colorado Air Whistleblowers’ Charge

State Directed to Fix Illegal Permits and Cease Enabling Pollution Evasions

Op-Ed | An alarm is raised, little is done, and employees flee

Fed up with the state’s failure to regulate air permits, three state employees came forward about a year ago, but ...

Illegal Colorado Air Pollution Permits Targeted

First Major Test for State’s New Environmental Justice Action Task Force

Op-Ed | Why KC Becker holds the key to Front Range air quality

Colorado has been badly out of compliance with National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for a decade now. ...

COMMENTARY | Opaque Decision-Making at The Colorado Air Pollution Control Division

Colorado Air Pollution Control Division has a convenient history of bad record keeping at a time when reporters, ...

Radioactive Buildings Dynamited Near L.A. 

State Permits Santa Susana Demolition Without Controls on Dust Plumes

Colorado Air Pollution – Gold and Fossil Fuel Mining

Several mines in Colorado received unlawful air permits that do not comply with air quality standards as a result ...

Colorado Air Pollution – Interstate Expansions

$1.2 billion project started in August 2018, to widen I-70 from 6 lanes to 8 lanes near Commerce City, Colorado.

Colorado Air Pollution – Suncor

The allegations against the CDPHE implicate the air permit renewal for the Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City.

COMMENTARY | What is Going On with Colorado Air Quality?

Colorado has been undermining its own air pollution experts for years in favor of easing requirements for polluters.

Letter to Michael Regan – Cherokee Power Plant, Colorado – 05-10-2021 (PDF) 

DESCRIPTION: Letter to Michael Regan regarding environmental justice issues around the Cherokee power plant in ...

Letter to Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser – Air Quality Standards – 05-07-2021 (PDF) 

DESCRIPTION: Request to Expand Scope of Investigation by Special Assistant Attorneys General into Non-Enforcement ...

Letter to the EPA Inspector General Requesting Review of Colorado Air Quality Non-Enforcement (PDF)

DESCRIPTION: Request for Review of Intentional Non-Enforcement of National Ambient Air Quality Standards by ...

Colorado Orders Staff to Ignore Air Pollution Violations  

Air Modelers Request Federal Intervention and Whistleblower Protection   

Letter to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment – Air Quality Standards – 03/30/2021 (PDF)

DESCRIPTION: Letter to Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment to request that Colorado meet all ...

Letter to EPA IG – Colorado Air Quality Standards – 03/30/2021 (PDF)

DESCRIPTION: Request for Review of Intentional Non-Enforcement of National Ambient Air Quality Standards by ...

Beyond 2020: Pollution Enforcement

The strength of pollution regulation in the U.S. relies on enforcement, and the agency in charge is falling down ...

I-70 Expansion Modeling Report (PDF)

Air Modeling for PM 2.5 & PM 10 for I-70 East Phase1 demonstrates that the project will violate NAAQS PM 2.5.

Pruitt’s New Dirty Air Plan Hatched Behind the Scenes

Ambient or Outdoor Air Pollution Standards Set for Rollback per Industry Playbook

Lawsuit to Require Chemical Accident Emission Reports

Hurricane Harvey Chemical Explosions Spotlight Neglected Clean Air Act Mandate

Who Turned off Air Pollution Monitor During Bridge Closure?

U.S. EPA to Investigate Why Key Air Monitor Went Offline for Nearly Three Days

Disturbing Toxic Air Results Confirmed in Paterson, NJ

State Dissembles on Findings That 7 Air Toxics Are “Above the Health Benchmark”

Twenty Seven New Jersey Superfund-Eligible Sites Left off List

EPA Still Reviewing Status of Unknown Number of Garden State Toxic Hotspots

Christie Guts Vapor Intrusion Safeguards

New Jersey Puts Private Consultants in Public Health Driver’s Seat

Cutbacks Cripple Arizona Air Pollution Enforcement

Despite Looming EPA Sanctions, County Signals Corporate Kid Glove Treatment

New Jersey to Deregulate Toxic Vapor Intrusion

Control of Deadly Seepage Put on “Honor System” in Christie Regulatory Rollback

New Jersey Guts New Privatized Toxic Clean-Up Rules

“Safety Cushion” Extended to Polluters at Expense of Public Health

Spiking Mercury Levels in Coal Ash Pose New Risks

Tougher Pollution Controls Multiply Toxic Potency of Coal Combustion Wastes

Christie to Axe Jersey Pollution and Public Health Rules

“Red Tape Review Group” Issues Hit List of Regulations to Toss or Water Down

New Jersey Downplays Disturbing Air Toxics Study

DEP Mounts Messaging Campaign to Minimize Risk Findings in Paterson

New Jersey Closing Its Nose to Vapor Intrusion Crisis

Vapor Intrusion Rules Cast into Regulatory Limbo as Horror Stories Multiply

Massachusetts Suspends Troubled Woody Biomass Initiative

Sustainability, Pollution and Net Energy Usage Uncertainties Prompt New Study

Radiation Exposure Limits Weakened in Departing Bush Move

Huge Hikes in Allowable Radioactivity in Drinking Water, Air and Soil

Cap & Trade Emissions Control Plans Have Poor Track Records

Three Market-Based Air Pollution Programs This Decade Deemed Failures

Asthma Epidemic Among Young Blacks in Ingham County

Suppressed Report Shows Disturbing Trends
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