A Friday Night Massacre in Colorado

Last Friday night I listened to the state of Colorado and the Suncor Corporation vote as one against independent monitoring and public health analysis of the Suncor refinery’s massive air pollution.

The Suncor refinery’s nay vote was cast by its public relations flak, Brandy Radey. It was her opinion that since the corporation was already monitoring its own pollution independent verification was unnecessary. This is a little like Jeffrey Dahmer arguing he didn’t need a butcher’s license since he was already doing it, and doing it quite well, thank you.

Governor Polis’s representative, Heather Wuollet, thought it more important that money be directed to a state sponsored proposal to fix up old cars in the neighborhood since everybody knows they are such big polluters.  This is especially true, she intoned, in poor neighborhoods where clunkers abound.  There is no question the neighborhoods around the Suncor refinery are generally poor.  But how the miracle of clunker transubstantiation might be accomplished equitably with public money was not revealed.  Neither was the fact raised that Canadian owned Suncor refinery happen to be one of the two largest polluters in the state.  In 2019 it released about 900,000 tons of pollution into the Denver metropolitan area.  That pollution was the equal of the tail pipe emissions from all 118,000 new cars sold in the state that year. Clunker indeed!

Ms Wuollet’s opinion differs radically from her boss John Putnam’s, the deputy director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.  Not long ago he said of the people living around the refinery that, “We definitely hear them…we are trying to collect more data…so that we can make science based decisions” to protect them. Putnam recently moved on to greener pastures, joining the Biden administration.But Ms. Wuollet’s immediate boss, Garry Kaufman, the head of the Air Pollution Control Division can still be found patrolling the hallways at the CDPHE.

Kaufman, another corporate lawyer known by detractors as belonging to the political caste of talking long, saying nothing, has also been assertive in the press about protecting the people.He points to the fines they’ve leveled against the refinery for its many people-poisonings as proof.  If you are of the neoliberal school that believes throwing a few coin at people after using them as punching bags is a form of protection then you may belong to his political caste.

Based on Friday night’s vote, in matters concerning air pollution and public health, the Polis administration has pivoted away from the need to know more to the position of needing to know not much beyond what Suncor tells it.

What was at stake in the FNM was how to spend $2.6 million in fine money from Suncor. The state had fined Suncor $9 million for repeated violations of its permits to rain benzene, hydrogen cyanide, sulfur dioxide, etc., etc., etc., down on the people.For this the state had sought and received high praise.  It sought and received less attention when it gave most the money back to Suncor.

Five million dollars was returned to Suncor so it could hire somebody to figure out how to make its operation less of a threat to public health.Suncor is the second largest corporation in Canada.Its primary business is mining tar sands, some of which are refined at the Denver refinery.The Suncor CEO makes a reported $12 million annually.  He lives 30 miles from the refinery.

As Lucy Molino, a mother of two teenagers, and a member of the citizen evaluation committee remarked: whose was the greater need, the people’s or the corporation’s?, for as she reminded everyone, most of the 20 proposals before them that evening could have been funded had the state not returned the $5 million to the perp.They were here to fight over leftovers, was that an accident or the design she asked?She also questioned why the state and Suncor were allowed to vote?Was this not advertised by the state as a citizen directed effort, the first of its kind?The state and Suncor combined constitute almost 20 percent of the vote.

In the end, and despite the votes to not fund by the state and Suncor, the proposal to monitor the refinery survived for a second and final vote to be held on April 15.Known as the Cultivando proposal for the grassroots Latino organization that helped develop and sponsors the proposal, it chances of being funded are on life support.Although it is the only proposal that would continuously monitor pollution form the refinery, it is expensive at $1.7 million, most of it for state of the art air monitoring equipment, which could be used into the future if the state truly wanted to continuously monitor as required by state law.The costs would also drop tremendously in out years since equipment costs would have already been paid.

This week a story broke in the Colorado Sun that Mr. Kaufman had directed his staff to not model for pollution from polluters as required by law.They were instructed to get the pollution permits out the door, and worry about the pollution later.Three of the staff, all computer modelers, have gone whistle blower.Of course Mr. Kaufman deserves his day in court, but these are courageous acts that only those who have done it can fully appreciate.

This new information helps explain the state’s opposition to funding the Cultivando proposal.It also helps explain why 3 days before the FNM Mr. Kaufman sent several members of his staff to lecture the Citizen Selection Committee on all the great things his division was doing or going to do once they had the money to protect them.One staff member spent much time explaining a bill before the legislature to monitor 3 toxins at several of the state’s worst polluters, including Suncor.She did not mention that under the bill’s timelines monitoring was probably 2 to 3 years out.Clearly, both the state and Suncor used these presentations to insinuate there was really no need for the Cultivando monitoring proposal.

This is how you get a Friday Night Massacre in Colorado.

PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. He can be reached at: ptdoe@comcast.net