Colorado investigating claims state pollution officials unlawfully issued permits, falsified data

Colorado’s attorney general is launching an independent investigation of whistleblower allegations within the state’s health department that officials responsible for controlling air pollution ordered employees to stop measuring surges of harmful sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulates at industrial sites.

Attorney General Phil Weiser will hire an outside group to probe the allegations by the three whistleblowers in the Air Pollution Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, according to a notice issued Monday.

Last month, the three sent a formal complaint to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general alleging a culture of approving permits for industrial polluters at all costs, sacrificing public health. They focused on permits allowing oil and gas industry facilities north of metro Denver to operate and said managers in one case directed employees who conduct modeling to measure air pollution to falsify data from a Teller County gold mine to ensure a violation would not be reported.

“A factual investigation will consider allegations in the EPA letter that permits were unlawfully issued and that a CDPHE modeler was ordered to falsify data in a modeling report to ensure that no modeled violation would be reported,” Weiser’s notice said.

And the investigators will evaluate whether the state health department had the discretion under federal law to relax air quality reviews of so-called “minor source” industrial facilities to ensure swift issuance of required permits. Then, the notice said, investigators will report their findings publicly.

The whistleblowers – health department employees Rosendo Majano, DeVondria Reynolds and Bradly Fink – made their allegations in a March 30 letter asking the EPA to investigate.

Attorneys for the Maryland-based group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed the complaint on behalf of the three employees. They said the Air Pollution Control Division’s violation of the Clean Air Act is “contributing directly to chronic health problems, premature deaths and severe injury to the environment by permitting ever more dangerous emissions.”

The pollution contributes to the unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone for which Colorado has been deemed a serious violator of federal health standards.

State air quality officials previously told The Denver Post that air pollution control director Garry Kaufman had conferred with Weiser’s office and the EPA before directing employees to shorten reviews for industrial facilities. An agency statement said “our modeling policies are in accordance with federal and state laws and we have carefully reviewed the relevant laws in consultation with both the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.”

This week, state officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Colorado’s increasingly urbanized Front Range for years has flunked the federal air quality health standards set by the EPA. Last year, Gov. Jared Polis acknowledged public health concerns when federal officials reclassified Colorado as being a “serious” violator of the Clean Air Act, requiring stricter enforcement of pollution limits. Colorado in the coming years is expected to become a “severe” violator of air quality limits, which will force even stricter efforts to clean up air by making rules and tightening controls through issuance of permits.

A coalition of environmental and neighborhood groups had asked Polis to conduct an independent investigation of the allegations and demanded that the state stop issuing permits to industrial polluters until an investigation is done. The notice posted by the attorney general’s office seeks bids by May 10 from outside legal groups interested in conducting the investigation.

This controversy has surfaced at a time when the air pollution control division is proposing to renew operating permits for major polluters including the Suncor Energy oil refinery north of Denver. Public hearings on that proposal are scheduled next month. Neighborhood groups are demanding closure of the refinery for health reasons and to spur a faster shift off fossil fuels.

The whistleblower complaint alleged managers short-circuited modeling used to estimate pollution levels at so-called “minor source” industrial facilities that emit less than 100 tons a year of pollution — not the refinery, which emits more than 800,000 tons of pollution over metro Denver.

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