Facing record levels of ozone pollution along Colorado’s Front Range this summer, and likely in summers moving forward, Gov. Jared Polis wants to spend nearly half a billion dollars cleaning the state’s air.
That means investing in electric school buses, offering free or discounted public transit during ozone pollution season, and handing out grants to curb industrial pollution and encourage higher-density and environmentally friendly development.
Polis’ state budget proposal also seeks to hire dozens for the state’s embattled Air Pollution Control Division and increase its ability to hand out more air quality permits to polluters. But without a culture shift in the division itself that move could squander millions, environmental experts say.
“It could work out but it could also be a waste of $52 million,” Robert Ukeiley, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said.
In all, Polis proposed to spend more than $424 million out of the state’s general fund to clean Colorado’s air as part of his record-high $40 billion budget proposal for next year.
The increasing number and intensity of Colorado’s hottest days, wildfires and worsening ozone underscores the urgency for such an investment, Polis said in his proposal. He split the package into three categories: transportation; monitoring, regulation and incentives; and buildings.
Transportation: $255 million
By far the largest portion of Polis’ air quality plan is a $150 million chunk for electric school buses throughout the state. It’s a wise move according to Jen Clanahan, Colorado director of the environmental nonprofit Mountain Mamas.
In the short term, swapping diesel buses for electric ones would prevent students from inhaling exhaust fumes, Clanahan said.
A 2004 study from the New Brunswick Lung Association indicated that student exposure to harmful particulates in the air is five to six times worse inside a bus than in the air outside.
“In Colorado, 300,000 kids, approximately, ride a school bus, including my own daughter,” Clanahan said.
In the longer term, the switch would cut overall transportation emissions across the state, the largest source of air pollution in Colorado and across the country, Colorado Department of Transportation director Shoshana Lew said.
The ultimate goal is for all of Colorado’s buses to be electric, Lew said. If approved, the $150 million would likely be used to subsidize school districts buying electric buses to replace old diesel ones.
Colorado Energy Director Will Toor said that money could help school districts replace about 2,000 buses — about half of the state’s school bus fleets — in six years.
Polis’ next-largest transportation spending proposal would give CDOT $40 million for the state agency to partner with cities and counties to expand sidewalk, bicycle and bus infrastructure along state roads passing through cities. In Denver, those roadways include Colfax Avenue, Colorado, Federal and Sheridan boulevards.
The idea is to “catalyze how we get transit onto some of these roads,” Lew said. “It’d often be making them more bus friendly. In some cases they lack sidewalks.”
The proposal would also tag another $28 million for CDOT to partner with the Regional Transportation District to offer free or discounted public transit passes during the height of ozone pollution season in the summer months to early fall.
Those measures would hopefully “make it really easy for people to get out of their cars and onto buses and trains,” while cutting vehicle emissions and improving air along the Front Range and throughout the rest of the state, Lew said.
The rest of the transportation proposal would set aside $15 million to retire and replace more than 500 diesel trucks with lower-emission ones, $12 million for electric bike and ride sharing rebates, and $10 million to help pay off and improve CDOT’s recently-purchased Burnham Yard rail yard.
Monitoring, regulation and incentives: $114.1 million
Polis earmarked just over $52 million in his clean air investment package for the state’s Air Pollution Control Division “to achieve immediate emission reductions in specific industries, increase permitting capacity” and to “improve monitoring of pollutants across Colorado.”
That money would be split between 2022 and 2023, interim division director Trisha Oeth said, and would allow the division to hire about 75 people next year and then another 138 the year after, nearly doubling its size.
More employees would mean the division could handle more permit applications, better monitor polluters and ultimately improve air quality throughout the state, Oeth said.
But Ukeiley noted that in recent years the division hasn’t been effective at curbing pollution and unless Polis and the head of Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment commit to more stringent monitoring and predictive modeling, the investment would essentially be a waste.
“With permitting now, the polluter says ‘This is how much I think I’m going to put out,’ and the state rubber stamps that,” Ukeiley said. “The $52 million dollar question is, are they going to just rubber stamp quicker or are they actually going to start following the law?”
State health officials last month ousted Garry Kaufman as director of the Air Pollution Control Division and created a new position for him as deputy director for regulatory affairs, cutting his salary from $168,048 to $151,596, according to pay information obtained through a public records request. Kaufman was central to a March whistleblower complaint, filed with the help of the Maryland-based organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
That complaint culminated in a report from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office indicating that Kaufman had failed to disclose conflicts of interest with a Teller County gold mine for two and a half years.
The report also found that Kaufman ordered managers to tell employees not to review or model estimated emissions at smaller facilities, deemed “minor sources” of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide or particulates of less than 2.5 micrometers, all of which contribute to unhealthy ozone. Kaufman’s orders meant that the Air Pollution Control Division issued multiple air quality permits to facilities that predictive models showed could violate federal pollution standards.
Without changing culture in the division exhibited by Kaufman, the extra money and people would do little to better manage and regulate polluters, Ukeiley said.
“All the laws and all the regulations that they need are already there, they just need a cultural shift to implement them in a way that protects Coloradans over the short-term profit of certain polluting industries,” he said.
State heath officials announced Oeth as Kaufman’s replacement about three weeks ago and while she said more staff will help the division continue its work, she fell short of saying whether a culture change is needed.
“We’re always taking a look internally and making sure that our commitment to protecting public health and environment is central to our work,” Oeth said.
Chandra Rosenthal, Rocky Mountain Field Office director for PEER, said the division clearly needs more people. She estimated it employs two people who conduct predictive modeling and about 30 permit engineers, all of whom are swamped with work. Oeth couldn’t immediately confirm whether the staffing estimate was accurate.
“If modeling was being done correctly, there’s no way with only two air modelers that they could keep up,” Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal, however, expressed optimism that the division is moving more in “the right direction,” but acknowledged more work is needed to boost accountability and transparency.
In addition to money for the Air Pollution Control Division, Polis’ proposal would set aside $50 million in grants to fund industrial improvements and reduce emission of pollutants and particulates, $7 million for aerial and ground-based monitoring around oil and gas facilities and $5 million to help communities dependent on coal transition away from the industry.
Buildings: $55.2 million
Polis’ proposal sets aside $28 million in the air quality package and another $100 million elsewhere in the budget for Strong Cities grants, which would go toward communities looking to development projects for infill development of existing lots and increase density, Colorado Energy Director Will Toor said. Housing with greater density, meaning more people in less space, and nearer to existing jobs is seen as providing much-needed affordable housing and reducing the need for people to drive longer distances to their workplaces, in turn cutting pollution.
Another $25 million would allow Toor’s office to offer grants to local governments looking to make existing buildings more energy efficient.
“Buildings are one of the five largest sources of greenhouse gas pollution in the state,” Toor said. “Moving toward more efficient buildings, more use of renewable energy and high efficiency heating are all ways that we can move toward very low or even net-zero emissions from buildings.
Along those lines, another $2 million set aside for grants for the cannabis industry would be for businesses to audit their energy use and make improvements that could use less water and energy. The cannabis industry offered the state an economic boon, Toor said, but indoor grow operations in particular are “energy intensive” enterprises.
“This is an opportunity to help drive that down,” he said.
While Toor, Oeth, Ukeiley and Rosenthal all see the governor’s air quality investment package as needed now, neither that nor the rest of his $40 billion budget are final. They face weeks or months of markups — the process of debates, amendments and changes — from the General Assembly’s Joint Budget Committee before the legislature votes to adopt a budget in the spring.
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