Even 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.
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.
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.
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»
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»
Public Comment on Minor Source NSR Modeling Guidelines | May 4, 2023
Amicus Brief in Support of Lawsuit against CDPHE | April 7, 2023
CPDHE Emails with Number of Permits | July 19, 2021
Letter on General Permits – Michigan | July 6, 2010