“Expect continued improvements” in Colorado


Fifty years after America’s first Earth Day spurred cleanups that led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, Colorado residents face less toxic muck, and pollution will decrease more in the future, federal enforcers say — rejecting claims that President Donald Trump has hobbled a once-robust agency.

People in Colorado and surrounding states who are bothered by the degradation of air, land and water should “expect continued improvements,” EPA regional administrator Greg Sopkin told The Denver Post.

But EPA regulatory rollbacks this week reached the point that Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser launched a legal battle to restore wetland and waterway protections. And state leaders accused the EPA of leaving states on their own to deal with unprecedented climate and health threats.

Colorado’s public health department, for example, is struggling to carry out state lawmakers’ order to cut heat-trapping greenhouse gas pollution from about 125 million tons a year to around 62 million tons by 2030 and 13 million tons by 2050 — even though the U.S. Supreme Court more than a decade ago ruled that the EPA has regulatory power to tackle this problem.

“The EPA still has a lot of very committed people with strong regulations in a number of areas where they are doing good work, and we have good coordination on enforcement, on things like Superfund, especially here at the Denver regional level,” said John Putnam, the state health department’s director of environmental programs. “At the same time, at the headquarters level, their policy initiatives to roll back critical environment protections make our jobs much harder and are not going to be protecting the environment.

“While it’s true we are cleaner now than 50 years ago and the Cuyahoga River (in Ohio) is no longer on fire, we have ozone pollution standards that we’re not meeting in Colorado and a large part of that is related to vehicle emissions standards that haven’t been strengthened. We’re not making progress on a number of fronts and we’ve seen rollbacks. … It would be better if we had a fully invested EPA.”

Bicyclists demonstrate near the state capitol ...

Duane Howell, Denver Post file

Bicyclists demonstrate near the state capitol during the first Earth Day in Denver on April 22, 1970. Since first Earth Day, Colorado environmentalists have taken significant steps to improve the ecology in the state.

Rollbacks and “intentional disregard”

Golden anniversaries of Earth Day last week and the EPA this year — as nature drives a deadly virus pandemic — put a focus on the agency’s mission of ensuring a cleaner and healthier environment.

The EPA began in December 1970, five months after President Richard Nixon proposed it, and grew into an often-opaque bureaucratic juggernaut with a budget of $8.1 billion and more than 14,000 employees.

U.S. withdrawal from the international agreement to combat global warming, along with rule rollbacks, have slowed momentum that once inspired emulators abroad. Climate activists now widely denounce U.S. extraction and burning of fossil fuels, pointing to record-high global atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (414 parts per million, up from 325 ppm in 1970), and Denver neighborhood groups question the EPA’s effectiveness.

“There are people in there with good hearts who want to help, but the leadership has been replaced with a who’s who from industry,” said Green Latinos state organizer and Colorado Latino Forum co-chairman Ean Tafoya, who represents low-income community interests in climate action, cleaner water and better access to public open space.

“By limiting windows for public comment, they certainly are muzzling voices of the people,” Tafoya said. “And rolling back enforcement during a crisis like this? It can only be seen as intentional disregard of frontlines communities.”

An American Lung Association air quality analysis last week ranked the Denver-Aurora metro area 10th worst in the nation, and Colorado Moms Know Best leader Jen Clanahan urged faster reduction of methane and ozone pollution.

EPA rollbacks in recent months include weakening clean car standards, reducing protection of waterways and wetlands, rejecting a tougher limit on soot, and easing control over mercury pollution from power plants. Trump administration officials have declared the environment cleaner than in the past and, deriding what they decry as Obama-era regulatory overreach, are prioritizing de-regulation to boost commerce.

Yet core federal laws remain on the books requiring clean water, clean air, healthy habitat to save species, and look-before-you-leap reviews of proposed new development.

A view of Denver can be ...

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

A view of Denver can be seen with Pikes Peak in the background on April 15, 2020, from Thornton. With fewer cars on the roads and planes in the air, clearer skies have been seen since stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the city.

“Emphasis on environmental protection”

Inside the EPA, top officials disputed criticisms from environmentalists and public health leaders.

A Denver-based team of 50 staffers who conduct field inspections will carry out work enforcing those laws across Colorado and five other states — Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah — as well as 28 tribal nations. They’ll conduct more than 500 scheduled on-site inspections by the end of the year, Sopkin and regional enforcement director Suzanne Bohan said in a Post interview.

EPA leaders also will launch new initiatives, such as a crackdown on installers of “defeat devices” that turn trucks into belchers of foul black exhaust, they said. They’ll require Colorado to submit an action plan by Aug. 3 to end persistent violations of federal air quality health standards, in part by requiring permits that set limits for all facilities that emit more than 50 tons a year of the volatile organic chemicals that lead to the formation of ground-level ozone smog.

And the controversial Waters of the United States rule that the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued Tuesday will still require protection of some intermittent streams in Colorado and the West, they said. The new rule relaxes Clean Water Act limits on destruction of wetlands and pollution of rivers and streams, including the “ephemeral” water bodies typical in the southwestern United States that dry up part of the year.

Coloradans concerned about disappearing nature and environmental degradation reasonably can harbor “a lot of hope for the future, even with an expanding population” and know “that the pollution levels will come down,” Sopkin said.

“I’m very optimistic. Colorado is an incredibly beautiful state, just like all of the Region 8 states, and there’s always going to be an emphasis on environmental protection of Colorado air, land and water. The EPA will continue to enforce, continue to do its due diligence, making sure the regulated community is following the laws,” he said.

The Trump administration’s rollback of fuel-efficiency limits on tailpipe pollution will lower prices of cars and trucks, enabling more Americans to upgrade out of dirtier old vehicles, Sopkin said.

EPA career staffers conduct compliance work in addition to inspections, Bohan said. “Our work has definitely not slowed down under this administration. We are as busy as ever,” she said, and a fair assessment should look beyond numbers of inspections and new enforcement cases.

“While our numbers might be lower, I can assure you we are 100% committed to the compliance assurance work we do.”

“Unacceptable impacts”

An EPA temporary enforcement discretion policy during the coronavirus pandemic has been “mischaracterized” to imply companies can decide for themselves whether to report on emissions and obey laws, Sopkin said. Agency chiefs said in a letter to Congress that they adopted the policy in response to industry concerns to enable prioritizing responses to “acute risks and imminent threats” rather than routine monitoring and reporting.

In recent meetings with industry trade groups, Sopkin said, he emphasized that this policy “is not a license to pollute” and won’t excuse criminal conduct. The policy “just recognizes that we are going to have enforcement discretion with regard to routine matters,” to be exercised after virus-related operational ramp-downs end.

Sopkin also defended the waterways rule, saying it will reduce uncertainty for farmers who otherwise might have to hire lawyers. He said “intermittent” waterways where melting snow flows toward “navigable interstate water” still will be protected.

Colorado AG Weiser announced the state will file a lawsuit fighting the rule because it illegally removes protection of many wetlands and the “ephemeral waters” common across the semi-arid West — affecting up to 70% of waterways in Colorado. The new rule will allow “unacceptable impacts,” hurting Colorado’s economy and water quality, Weiser said.

The EPA rollbacks shift burdens to states in tackling challenges such as climate warming. Colorado officials are wrestling with how to reduce air pollution from burning fossil fuels enough to meet state requirements, mulling reductions from electricity-generating power plants, commuters in cars, oil and gas companies and other industrial sources.

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