Colorado Environmental Justice Task Force completes recommendations

In a final marathon, the Environmental Justice Task Force, established by Bill 1266, the Environmental Justice Act, completed its legislative and regulatory policy recommendations at its meeting in Pueblo on November 9 and 10.

Heading into the final day, there were a few questions left regarding the group’s suggestions on practical ways to address environmental justice inequities in the state, with a focus on disproportionately affected communities, including including the number of working group members who should vote for each recommendation in directing that it be included in the report.

The group had been back and forth throughout its meetings, held every two months from December 2021, unable to agree on whether the threshold should be a two-thirds majority or a simple majority. Members of the working group who carry out work on environmental justice called for a simple majority, arguing that it was the best way to ensure that the voices of the community were represented. Others, largely members of the oil and gas industry, argued that a two-thirds majority showed stronger support for each recommendation and was consistent with what had been decided in previous meetings.

“Our obligation is not to each other, it’s not to our procedures, it’s to Colorado,” countered Renee M. Chacon, a member of the task force and longtime Commerce City activist. “We are accountable to our communities when we return home.”

Click to enlarge

Renee M. Chacon hoped to turn her life as an activist into politics with the Environmental Justice Task Force.

Renee Millard Chacon for the Facebook page of the municipal council of district 3

And the community seemed to agree, showing up for a public comment session on November 9 that lasted an hour longer than expected due to the number of people who wanted to speak.

“The current requirement of a two-thirds majority is grossly unfair, inequitable, and that is exactly why this task force and others like it are needed, to correct the processes and impacts of environmental injustice and social,” said Velma Campbell, a Pueblo physician. “The two-thirds majority requirement requires community advocates to gain approximately more than half the support of the remaining working group members for a recommendation, while positions favored by industry or Agencies can pass the Environmental Justice Task Force without community support.”

According to Tyson Johnston, director of land and business development for Gunnison Energy and co-chair of the task force, one of the biggest challenges for the group was the lack of trust between the task force and the community due to experiences past with environmental racism. .

“The people who participated were absolutely vital,” Johnston said. Westword. “And from my point of view, [they] really changed my understanding, my opinions and educated me on a lot of things that happen within these communities. … It’s encouraging to me that we’re putting something together that’s actually going to have results, and hopefully those results will motivate these communities to really be a part of this even more, and to refine this in the future and create something something they trust, trust and look forward to working with.

To do this, some of the public commenters suggested that the task force should create the broadest set of recommendations possible rather than shifting environmental justice priorities into a minority report.

“I really want to bring out the voices of those directly affected by pollution, noise, dust and the fear that our children are getting sick all the time,” said Patricia Nelson, a mother who has advocated for fracking. hydraulic. further from Bella Romero Academy in Greeley. “These are the people who should be represented and should be the loudest voices. … We just need to find the strength within ourselves and remember who we are here to uplift.

On November 10, members of the working group had a final discussion on whether only a simple majority was needed for a final recommendation. Trisha Oeth, director of health and environmental protection for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said that while she still thinks a two-thirds majority would be stronger, she thought the recommendations would be delegitimized if the task force did not do so. pass by simple majority.

Many, including Johnston, pointed out that the document came very close to a two-thirds consensus anyway. And in the end, the task force agreed that the recommendations should only be supported by a simple majority.

After that, three of the seven sections of the final recommendations were unanimously adopted: those dealing with health disparities, best practices for community engagement, and defining communities disproportionately affected. The four that passed with some opposition were a section on how environmental justice efforts should be coordinated across the state; a section on new centralized analyzes of environmental equity and cumulative impacts; a section on additional environmental projects; and a section on just transition.

Despite the move to a simple majority requirement for recommendations, there will still be three elements to a minority report from the task force’s environmental advocates.

The first concerns the environmental justice coordination entity. All members of the working group agreed that, for now, the current environmental justice program of the CDPHE should oversee the work and that the legislator should assess its performance to determine if another entity is needed. The disagreement came over the oversight of the program: should it be through the current Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a permanent institution established by the same statute that created the task force, or a separate interagency oversight board?

In their minority report, environmental justice advocates Beatriz Soto, Kimberly Mendoza-Cooke, Hilda Nucete, Meera Fickling, Jamie Valdez, Ean Thomas Tafoya and Chacon will offer separate counsel.

Most of these members – minus Mendoza-Cooke and with the addition of toxicologist Uni Blake – will also create a minority report arguing that the environmental equity and cumulative impacts analyses, which will analyze the cumulative impacts of air, water, soil, radiation and other types of pollution for specific areas involved in agency decision-making, should be able to propose the development of new health thresholds for pollutants.

According to this group, the standards are not always sufficiently protective and communities should be able to benefit from greater protection if the data indicate that this might be necessary. But other members of the task force, including representatives from state agencies like the Air Pollution Control Division and the Public Utilities Commission, argued that such proposals could open up the State to disputes.

The final minority report will concern additional environmental projects, which are established when an entity chooses to donate funds to a community organization rather than pay a fine for breaking the law, which happened with the Suncor oil refinery. This year. Marsha Nelson of the Colorado Department of Transportation, along with Valdez, Chacon, Fickling, Tafoya, and Soto, said the community should have the opportunity to determine whether the applying entity can participate in project selection. The other members agreed that the entity should do so, as it would have no incentive to participate in a PES if it could not be part of the process. The majority of members agreed that the entity should not have a louder voice than the community.

Other hot topics that eventually reached unanimous majorities: the rigor with which the community engagement task force recommendations should be applied, the extent to which the state’s just transition plan should consider expand and whether the ‘disproportionately impacted community’ label should be changed.

Throughout the work of the task force, some communities, including tribal entities, said the term “disproportionately affected” had a negative connotation, defining communities by the harm done to them rather than their strengths. . The task force eventually agreed that the terms of reference should be removed, but determined that the members lacked the knowledge to choose a replacement. Instead, they recommended that the term be reassessed and updated in the near future as the environmental justice work recommended by the task force continues.

“It will take years to implement,” said Tafoya, the task force’s other co-chair. Westword. “For us to really start to unravel hundreds of years of problems, it’s going to take time, and I hope people will stay involved. People are determined to see the recommendations implemented.

Once the group approved the recommendations, Environmental Justice Program staff tweaked them for grammar and consistency; the final report was completed by the official deadline of 14 November. A letter from the co-chairs was attached to the recommendations, which will be shared with state agencies and the legislature.

Although the process was arduous at times, the task force ended its term with a celebration.

“I came in with a lot of skepticism about how we were all going to interact, how we were all going to work together,” Johnston said. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned through this process is that, in all the political and ideological disagreements that the various groups that are part of this task force may have, on the whole, we’re not all really not that different. I really respect everyone I work with on this working group and the time and effort and thought they put into all of this. … We are blessed to be able to plant the seed, and I’m going to stay and make sure it gets watered.

View all working group documents, including final recommendations, here.

About Jean R. Manzer

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