The Great Divorce: the People of Colorado v. the State

When I was a boy, my dad took me and my twin sister and brothers to see the demolition of the Omaha-Grant Smoke Stack in Globeville. At the time it was among the tallest smokestacks in the world. It stood 350 feet high, with brick walls 12 feet thick. It was said to contain enough bricks to build 600 six-room bungalows.

Globeville, a working class neighborhood in northeast Denver, sits at or near the zenith of the places industry, developers, and the political elite have done their best to destroy. Parts of the area are still a Superfund site because of the lead and arsenic left behind from the smeltering days. It was once home to a largely Polish-American population. Latinos are now the majority.

When I was in graduate school, Globeville again made the front page, losing a court case in which it had sought relief from the foul odors caused by a rendering plant built in its midst — slaughterhouses had replaced smeltering for gold, silver and copper. The judge told the citizens of Globeville to suck it up, they didn’t have a right to clean air.

Nothing has changed over the decades. Just to the east of Globeville is another industrial abomination of long standing, the Suncor refinery. The mother company is the second largest corporation registered in Canada.

It’s somewhat of an aside but Canadian ownership of mineral and fossil fuel companies have an ugly history in Colorado. Some people will remember the Summitville Mine disaster. A cyanide gold mine gone haywire, it became a federal Superfund site. It cost the American people $250 million for initial cleanup, with a long-term annual operating cost of $2 million for water treatment. After 27 years of operation by EPA, Colorado will start picking up these annual costs in 2021. The Canadian company that operated the gold mine refuses to pay.

The Suncor refinery, the existence of which predates World War II, should be thought of as Colorado’s own Little Shop of Horrors. Of course, it is surrounded on all sides by working-class neighborhoods, with Latinos now the dominant ethnic group.

In addition to Globeville, the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood is directly to the southwest of Suncor. This neighborhood has the added burden of being torn apart by a thoroughly dunderheaded, federally subsidized highway realignment of I-70 at a cost of $2-$3 billion. To many developers, particularly road-building and water project aficionados, federal tax dollars are free money and justify a shopping spree.

The project is widely opposed by residents, but loved by the power elite and the developers who may hold lingering dreams of the Winter Olympics being enticed to town. The public was conned out of another billion dollars to renovate the stock show complex, which is also in this neighborhood. The Denver Stock Show runs for a few weeks each January. Adding icing on the cake, the state legislature offered up another $200,000 to build a world-class horse hospital at the site. There is always money for the essentials.

The refinery itself is within the southern boundaries of Commerce City, to the east and north of the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods. In the last century, Commerce City proudly advertised itself as the Industrial City, but that was before NAFTA, and before developers started gentrifying the northern parts of the city. Those neighborhoods are now also fighting the invasion of the frackers from the north.

But back to our Little Shop of Horrors, in 2019 Suncor got the nod as the biggest stinker in town, by far. This was the result of a study by the University of Colorado published in the International Journal of Environmental and Public Health. Legislators tell me when the winds are right, its stinky reach extends all the way to the Capitol, five miles distance, reminding the elect of what they aren’t missing.

But the real question from a public health prospective is, what’s in the stench? The short answer is no one knows for sure. Like its relationship with the rest of the oil industry, the state relies on the Suncor polluters to tell it what’s happening. In so doing, it holds fast to the neoliberal playbook of putting corporate interests and profits before people’s health and wellbeing.

Nevertheless the refinery’s deplorable safety record is gaining greater attention, though not actual corrective action, as the Front Range’s air quality continues to be among the worst in the nation, and has been for well over a decade. Of course, the biggest polluter is the fracking industry north of the city, extending all the way to the Wyoming border, but Suncor still holds a gilded place of honor in the state’s grand exhibition hall of corporate polluters.

For example, in the summer of 2018, the refinery was releasing hydrogen cyanide in vast quantities, well above that which their generous state pollution permit allows. But rather than insisting on better operational practices, the State was considering increasing their pollution allowance so the refinery could live within it. Hydrogen cyanide gas, in its concentrated form, is lethal, but even at very low concentrations, it causes headaches, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting and vertigo, exactly what Suncor neighbors say is happening to them.

The real crime is that neither Suncor nor the State informed the residents until months after the releases, once again giving the lie to those who claim the control of government by corporate interests is exaggerated. Neither has the State done a qualitative study to determine the health impacts on residents in the surrounding neighborhoods, even though other studies show that these three neighborhoods have elevated incidents of heart disease, lung disease, and cancer.

More recently, in December of last year, the refinery released clay-like particulates that so darkened the sky that Suncor’s PR flacks, their minds working at insensate speed, termed the release simply an “opacity incident.” Suncor has added a new term to the American lexicon. So, the next time a hail of soot and ash so darkens the skies that the sun is but a faint outline, dismiss it as just another opacity incident.

There was no hiding the threat this time — darkness at noon is not that common, even in Suncorland. Two schools were in lockdown. The refinery said it would pay for all car washes, and simultaneously warned people to wash thoroughly, including their clothing, without delay. The local police chief gave his medical opinion that everything was fine. Colorado’s air quality personnel have only been haltingly heard from.

This year Suncor was fined over $9 million for 100 recent air-quality violations, including the two described above. This is its largest fine hereto, but certainly not its first. And keep in mind this is Suncor reporting on itself, so the real number of infractions could be higher.

The Suncor refinery’s CEO, in an attempt to put the sun-eclipsing episode and the $9 million fine behind the company, publicly apologized, telling all who would listen that Suncor was going to be a better neighbor and citizen. He promised. Only days later, an ugly stream of yellow smoke belched from the plant. Suncor described it as almost identical to the 2019 sun-eclipsing event. The pollution-causing operation was eventually suspended, but only after someKatzenjammer Kids-like scurrying to find somebody in charge to give the order.

The foregoing should leave no doubt that the relationship between the State and the refinery is not consistent with the foundational expectation that government shall, first of all, protect the people and their interests.

But the federal government in its commitment to the neoliberal imperative of corporate protection, uber alles, carries a big burden of guilt, too. For example, no air pollutants have been added to the six that made up the original ambient air standards under the Clean Air Act list in 1976. That’s right: Over the last 45 years, not one new ambient standard for any air pollutant, not even benzene or hydrogen cyanide, has been added.

As far as benzene goes, Suncor was slapped with a $2 million fine a few years back for a series of uncontrolled releases of benzene into Suncorland neighborhoods. Benzene is a known carcinogen. The World Health Organization (WHO) says there is no safe limit for humans. Benzene is a common poison in the fracking fields of Colorado.

Benzene releases from a well pad near a school, Bella Romero, in Greeley, adds to the evidence of the State’s abdication to corporate rule. This industrial-sized pad for 24 individual wells, that might reasonably rival Suncor emissions during early fracking stages, was originally approved by the State for development near a Greeley school in a middle-class neighborhood with a largely white student body. It was moved because of stiff opposition from parents and neighbors. Bella Romero School became the tar baby. The students at Bella Romero are predominantly the children of working-class and emigrant parents with much less economic and political power. Thus, classism and racism are shown to be just as important to our understanding of neoliberalism as is government toadying.

In an attempt to silence criticism, the State agreed to monitor the Bella Romero site, but only after numerous anecdotal reports of large-scale pollution at the site became politically impossible to ignore. After monitoring intermittently for several months, the State concluded there was no benzene risk. Only one short-term benzene release exceeding the State’s short-term workplace standard of 9 parts per billion was recorded in 85 days of intermittent monitoring.

An activist group, 350Colorado, challenged the State’s assertion. Their analysis of the same data shows that benzene releases were exceeded 114 times in the 85 days the State took measurements. 350Colorado used the lower California short-term workplace standard for benzene of 6 ppb. But remember the WHO says for humans there is no safe benzene limit, not even for emigrant children.

Remember, too, that since mid-year 2019, Colorado law requires that all large emitters of oil and gas pollution be continuously monitored. The state’s monitoring equipment at Bella Romero was operational only about half the time it was in the field. It is rumored the State intends to buy another of the $400,000 whiz-bang machines to form the twin pillars of its mandated oversight responsibilities of large emitters. There is only one Suncor, but there are a few thousand of the mega well pads like that at Bella in the state. Two is not enough.

In October of last year, the State, in its uninterrupted downward drift toward corporate serfdom, issued another finding that was, this time, a complete fabrication. It claimed a new study, using a simulation model with data partially collected by the industry, indicated dangerous levels of benzene might occur up to 2,000 feet from a well site. What the State failed to mention was that the study criteria required modeling only to 2,000 feet, and in fact, the report’s own modeling tables, buried in the bowels of the report, showed dangerous levels of benzene contamination extending well beyond 2,000 feet, perhaps as far as a mile or more. The State has refused to correct its lie.

For most of the past decade, setbacks from homes have been 500 feet or less, schools eventually got 1,000 feet of protection. No setback requirement exists for developers coming in after the wells are producing to build homes or schools, once again exposing the general mindlessness of the State’s regulatory framework.

Last year, after passage of SB 181, the State set a new arbitrary setback of 1,500 feet for homes and 2,000 for schools. This setback might have been determined by early information on the simulation study, or might have been just number-pulling that the industry could live with, but it was not based on any serious scientific information. Therefore it did not and does not satisfy the requirements in SB 181 that fossil fuel development can only take place provided public health and the environment are protected. I hope we can all agree that not knowing is not the same as knowing, even in the reigning upside-down world we inhabit.

So how do the people of Colorado reclaim their government from the oil industry? Without hard scientific information that can’t be twisted or denied, it will be impossible. It will be exceedingly difficult even with solid information, as the foregoing exposes.

The group I belong to, Be the Change Colorado, has asked repeatedly that the State initiate continuous measurements of large emitters as required by SB 181. The State has turned a deaf ear, the legislature has pleaded poverty, suggesting, from a cynical point of view, the legislature passed a law it didn’t want implemented.

So let’s see. Atmospheric scientists have said they could devise a continuous monitoring system for Suncorland at an annual cost of about $150,000. The information gathered would be almost instantaneously available to the public and local governments in Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and Commerce City, thus neutralizing the “opacity events” that so characterize the State’s oversight responsibilities. The $9 million fine recently exacted from Suncor would keep the program running for 60 years.

Suncor has a state permit to emit 800,000 tons of pollutants a year. That is equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions from 174,000 cars on the streets of Denver, or from a statewide perspective, equivalent to CO2 emissions from over 10% of all vehicles registered in the state. But remember it’s not just CO2 that is emitted at Suncorland, but a witch’s brew of poisons such as benzene, hydrogen cyanide and many others, the synergistic effects of which on human health are simply unknown.

Real-time continuous monitoring would facilitate reasoned decision-making. The refinery might have to eliminate some of its activities that threaten public health, or, absent the ability to reduce its level of pollution, it might have to close down. It might also elect to move to a new location. The first two are public decisions. The latter is corporate, but even so, it is doubtful Suncor, a Canadian company remember, would be invited to set up camp in metropolitan Ottawa.

Continuous monitoring of the large emitters of industrial-sized oil installations in the fracking fields is a more difficult undertaking. There are likely thousands of them. A small group of activists have been in contact with scientists in an attempt to break the logjam. They have a commitment from a local aviation company, the most experienced in the world, to do flyovers to identify the large emitters. The entire northern Front Range formed by the oil-bearing Denver-Julseberg Basin could be monitored at a cost of $6,000 per flight. Analysis of the collected data by scientists would cost another $2,000 per flight. These activists, of whom I am one, have talked to the state budget committee and to legislative leaders themselves about funding this initiative.

One senate leader told me there was no money and that I didn’t understand budgets. Perhaps not, but I do understand puffery and pork.

This year, the State will collect about $230 million from the oil industry in severance taxes. Tax revenues will go down precipitously as the fracking industry continues its collapse, but revenues will still be in the millions for the next few years.

Activists have written legislation suggesting that this money should be placed in a trust to prepare for the day when the people will have to close wells left behind by a dying industry. The costs will be in the billions, easily.

None of this $230 million will be used to monitor large emitters as the law requires as a condition necessary for the protection of the public and the environment. Instead, roughly half will go to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and half to the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) to fund long-standing programs that have a lot of oink in them.

At DNR, the money will be used to fund the COGCC, the division that oversees the oil industry, and other agencies within the department. The governor could allow some of it, perhaps as little as $250,000 for flyovers to start an inventory of major pollution sources in the fracking fields of Colorado. But, using the pandemic as an excuse, Polis has taken the opposite approach and halted all rulemaking associated with the health and safety requirements of SB 181 within this department. In true neoliberal fashion, he has not curtailed new drilling permits, however.

Roughly half of the money allocated to the DNR goes to fund water projects. Yes, water projects. For example, one project approved recently is a grant of $250,000 to help fund a sprinkler system on private land that could increase flows on the source stream that runs through the property.

Since the water project grant program’s inception in 2006, the State has given away about $91 million to help rural water users, many of them private or quasi-private entities. With the new law providing that sports betting tax revenues be applied to state water projects, any justification for the continued use of severance tax money for water projects is even more indefensible.

In a world where neoliberalism isn’t the guiding principle, some of it might even be redirected to do monitoring in the service of protecting public health and the environment. This would require a funding decision from the governor for some of the money allocated to the DNR to be redirected to independent monitoring, or a one-sentence modification to existing law by the legislature to make some share of the severance tax available to public health.

The State grant program at DOLA using severance tax revenues rests on even shakier ground. For example, last year a $1 million grant was given to a condominium near Steamboat Springs to upgrade its sewage system. Similar infrastructure grants were given to a horsy-set development west of Colorado Springs, and another at a housing development in Bennett. About a half-million was given to Keystone Resort for similar water infrastructure improvements.

Most of DOLA grants could be characterized as pork for the provinces. The kinds of things local governments wouldn’t fund themselves or seek the public’s approval through bonding for, but the kind of dreamy stuff you’d do if somebody promised you a pot of money with no strings attached.

For example, the Leadville Opera House got a $800,000 facelift. Despite the Defense Department’s $750 billion budget, no money was available for the national guard armory in Durango. So it got a million-dollar makeover from the severance tax fund instead. And Wray got a couple of million for Main Street beautification. (Wray is the county seat of the one the counties that threatened to break away from the state if state government didn’t let them do as they wanted with oil and gas regulations.) Hell, even Weld County, the epicenter of the secession movement, is going to enjoy a million-dollar grant for a new public works building, and the region is going to be graced, at another million, with a new police training center, complete with firing range and driving track. Poor old Baca County only got $200,000 for fairgrounds improvements.

Would this million, and the hundreds of millions spent over the last decades, have been better saved away for the day when the people of Colorado will be expected to pay for the closing of thousands of wells left behind by a collapsed industry? And might not a little of this money still be used to help establish an independent monitoring system that is openly available to the public?

The foregoing narrative leaves no doubt that independent oversight is needed of State regulatory activities. It can be accomplished at a relatively insignificant cost by enlisting independent scientists at state universities and research facilities, many of whom have already volunteered to help as concerned citizens.

It’s been said that a society is measured by how it treats its weakest members. The State’s treatment of the working people in the Globeville, Elyria-Swansea and Commerce City neighborhoods surrounding the Suncor refinery is nothing short of criminal neglect. The State’s indifference to the pleas of people in the fracking fields of Colorado is similarly despicable.

A great divorce is demanded. Let it begin. Let it be loud and raucous, so that those on high can, for once, hear and believe.


PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. He can be reached at: