By Trish Zornio
At least one air monitoring site in Commerce City is set to close this month due to a lack of available funds at the state level. The closure comes as Suncor continues to emit high pollutants, prompting two state health warnings in April alone.
Cultivando, the community group that oversees the air monitoring efforts, was originally funded in 2021 with two supplemental environmental project grants totaling $1.8 million. The grants were awarded after the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) allocated a portion of its $9 million settlement with Suncor for continuous air pollution monitoring and education.
Both grants were nonrenewable, however, so Cultivando recently applied for a new state grant under CDPHE’s Environmental Justice Grant Program.
The independent volunteer advisory board selected eight awardees, and Cultivando’s proposal to continue full air monitoring in the area was not among them. Cultivando expressed frustration at the lack of continued support from the state, saying the money was critical to sustaining full air monitoring efforts.
“The state’s rejection to continue funding our air monitoring was frustrating because our work is evident, the results have been measurable, and community input has also been present every step of the way,” Cultivando wrote in a statement to The G.E.S. Gazette. “The effort to upgrade the Denver monitor included equipment acquisition so that we could take radioactive measurements and measure other pollutants such as small particulates, PM 2.5, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.”
Cultivando’s air monitoring efforts with Boulder Air resulted in a presentation featuring multiple local scientists who offered a new understanding of the area’s air pollution concerns. The group’s monitoring efforts have also been used by CDPHE to help track and issue health warnings, and the Environmental Protection Agency has openly stated it intends to review Cultivando’s findings to consider the next steps in addressing local pollution levels.
The EPA also awarded Cultivando a $500,000 grant for continuous air monitoring to help maintain at least one of the air monitoring sites, even as state funds for the project dry up.
“Community-based air monitoring is a high priority for EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment,” said an EPA spokesperson in a statement to The G.E.S. Gazette. “These grassroots monitoring efforts are producing valuable information and empowering our most underserved communities as partners in protecting health and the environment. Cultivando applied for and was awarded a grant under the American Rescue Plan and Inflation Reduction Act community monitoring grants. EPA is working with Cultivando on their grant requirements, once met, the funding will be awarded and can be utilized to facilitate their monitoring.”
The EPA grant, however, is a small fraction of the original award that kickstarted Cultivando’s monitoring program, and the grant alone is unlikely to sustain the current level of monitoring by Cultivando. Asked for comments on how local officials are responding to the reduction of continuous air monitoring in the area, Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca stated that this is a devastating reality and that she had been working to put the group in touch with other funding options.
“Government that wants healthy communities should be investing in this work,” CdeBaca said. “Their failure to support meaningfully in an ongoing fashion speaks volumes about their priorities and the continued trend of which communities can be sacrificed.”
Cultivando confirmed they have looked into multiple additional funding sources to no avail yet. According to Rebecca Curry of Earthjustice, one possible contributor to fewer state funding options for groups like Cultivando is the lack of financial penalties obtained by CDPHE against Suncor in the years since the 2020 settlement.
Given the original SEP grants for Cultivando were funded by the settlement, more financial penalties obtained by CDPHE for repeated pollution violations since then might have generated more revenue to be used for local pollution monitoring.
A spokesperson at CDPHE confirmed that although the state has issued several compliance advisories that could eventually yield financial penalties, such actions are all still pending. No timeline of potential closure was offered.
In a closing statement, Cultivando said, “If the state does in fact care … about the health of its disproportionately impacted communities, then it will do everything in its power to protect them from continuous harm.”