Growing spotlight on environmental justice focuses on Colorado’s energy future

The prospect of testifying before the Colorado Public Utilities Commission might be unnerving for a lot of people, but Ean Tafoya was excited about being cross examined during a recent hearing.

“Huge for me and the (environmental justice) coalition,” Tafoya wrote in a text to The Denver Post before the April 21 hearing on a utility’s plan to help move the state’s transition to electric vehicles forward.

Tafoya, the Colorado field advocate for GreenLatinos, referred to “the power of the mic” to convey the positions of his organization and other members of the Environmental Justice Coalition on Black Hills Energy’s proposal.

The advocates will also weigh in on Xcel Energy-Colorado’s new electric resource plan, focusing on the impacts they believe the utility’s decisions will have on communities that have borne much of the brunt of pollution from power plants and other heavy industry.

Tafoya, 35,  grew up in northeast Denver, an area once labeled the nation’s most polluted zip code as a result of decades of industrial activity that contaminated the air, water and soil. The area is home to an oil refinery, a natural gas power plant and two Superfund sites. Residents contend with emissions from vehicles speeding by on Interstate 70, which is undergoing major reconstruction in the area.

“The entire area is probably one of the worst air-pollution areas in the entire country,” Tafoya said.

Activists and elected officials say it’s time that low-income communities and people of color who have been disproportionately affected by industrial pollution have a say about how or whether the activity should continue in their backyards. At the federal and state levels, there is a push to make environmental justice a priority in decisions on transportation, energy projects and whether land should be developed or left open.

A handful of bills moving through the Colorado General Assembly address environmental justice. One, Senate Bill 21-200, would set specific caps on greenhouse-gas emissions as well as establish an environmental justice ombudsperson position and an advisory board in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“Climate change and pollution hurt all of us. It doesn’t necessarily hurt all of us evenly,” state Rep. Dominique Jackson, an Aurora Democrat, said during a news conference last week.

Jackson is sponsoring HB 21-1266, which would create a task force to make recommendations to the legislature on strategies, policies and programs for confronting environmental inequities statewide. The bill requires the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission to reach out to communities that have suffered more harmful environmental effects than others.

The opportunity to speak in a PUC hearing, a first for Tafoya, was an important step in providing a voice for people who face higher pollution levels, greater health risks and have less input into environmental laws and policies, he said.

“The PUC has not been the most friendly place for environmental justice advocates. It’s not been a place in which we’ve engaged effectively in the past,” Tafoya said. “It’s been clear that our voice has been missing.

“But it seems to me they’re turning that corner,” he added.

As Xcel Energy seeks approval from the PUC for its new electric resource plan, Tafoya and other advocates hope to participate in the process. Xcel, Colorado’s largest electric utility, has been commended for its strides in adding more renewable energy to its portfolio. The utility’s resource and clean energy plan filed in March with the PUC proposes cutting greenhouse-gas emissions 85% by 2030 and getting about 80% of its power from renewable sources by 2030. All its coal operations will be retired by 2040, according to the plan.
Xcel Energy’s Comanche Generating Station is a 1,410-megawatt, coal-fired power plant in Pueblo. Xcel plans to close two of the plant’s three units by 2025. It’s currently the state’s single largest industrial polluter.
Environmental and community activists want Xcel Energy to shut down coal faster. And they would like to see the Cherokee natural gas plant in northeast Denver phased out and replaced with renewable energy and the Comanche 3 coal-fired plant in Pueblo closed before the planned retirement of 2040.

While burning natural gas produces roughly half the carbon dioxide of coal, the methane it emits is a potent greenhouse gas. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is about 84 times more powerful in the short term than carbon dioxide at trapping heat.

“Gas isn’t the solution that it’s touted as. We want to see a transition to renewables to prevent further exacerbating the climate crisis,” said Ren-Caspar Smith, an organizer with the Sierra Club.

For years Xcel Energy-Colorado has been listening to and working with the communities it serves about interest in moving to more renewable energy, said Alice Jackson, the utility’s president. The new resource plan reflects that progress, she said.

“It’s just a huge step forward and it’s well beyond what anybody thought we were go to be able to do in this time frame,” Jackson said.

In 2018, Xcel announced a goal of being carbon-free by 2050, making it the first major utility to set such a goal, making it the first major utility to set such a goal.

At the same time, Jackson said, the company sees having a diverse set of power resources as key to delivering affordable and reliable electricity “all day, every day.” Continuing to operate the Cherokee gas plant and the Comanche 3 coal unit until 2040 are part of the plan to do that, she said.

“Fuel diversity is important right now. Technology hasn’t developed to the point yet where we can sit there and say we don’t need these other types of resources in order to be able to provide reliable service for our customers,” Jackson said.

The freezing weather in February that caused power outages from Texas to the Midwest and sent natural gas prices soaring across the region, including in Colorado, but Xcel Energy kept the power flowing, Jackson said.

“There is a need for firm capacity and reliability, resources that can turn on and off easily whenever needed for as long as they’re needed, but gas isn’t the only way to provide that,” said Smith.

Renewable energy sources, battery storage, managed demand and connecting to a regional transmission network are other options, Smith said. Beyond the price of gas are concerns about the health effects, such as respiratory problems, from living around power plants or where the gas is drilled, he added.

“When we talk about plants like Cherokee in north Denver, we can’t forget about the environmental justice concerns. It’s an extremely densely populated area,” Smith said. “About 67,000 people live within three miles of that plant and are breathing that air every day.”

Tafoya said there are multiple sources of pollution in the area that includes where he grew up, the Cole neighborhood, and the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood. The Suncor Energy oil refinery, to the north, has a history of malfunctions and, along with the Cherokee and Comanche power plants, is among the state’s top 20 greenhouse gas polluters, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records.

“You can see the Cherokee gas plant towers from my mom’s front yard,” Tafoya said in a video produced by the Sierra Club.

In an interview, Tafoya said he knows of many people in the neighborhood who have asthma, including his godson.

“When we saw COVID start to happen, we saw the connection between respiratory diseases and pre-existing conditions,” Tafoya said. “COVID hit our community hard.”

A Denver Environmental Health report said the predominantly Latino neighborhoods of Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods suffer some of the highest rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease and other illnesses in the city for a number of reasons. The EPA’s EJSCREEN, an environmental justice mapping tool, shows the Cole neighborhood in the 89th percentile for small particulate pollution, which means only 11% of the state has higher levels.

Sources of particulate matter pollution, which has been linked to lung and heart disease, include power plants and vehicles, according to the EPA.
Suncor refinery is pictured on Feb. 10, 2021.
“Xcel takes environmental seriously,”  Jackson said. “We’re looking at it pretty holistically: the cost, the economic impact on the communities, the emissions, air quality, as well as jobs.”

The Cherokee plant was converted from coal to natural gas as part of the Colorado $1 billion Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act program approved in 2010 to cut air pollution.

“The reduced emissions that we’ve realized at that plant are dramatic,” Jackson said. “Nitrous oxide is down by more than 95%. SO2 (sulfur dioxide) is down over 99.9%, and mercury has been completely eliminated.”

Comanche 3 in Pueblo will be the last of Xcel Energy’s coal plants to close. Xcel has proposed running it at no more than a third of its capacity after 2030 and shuttering it by 2040. Jackson said the plant will provide reliable, affordable energy as Xcel makes the transition to “a new energy future.”

Jackson acknowledged the mechanical problems that idled Comanche 3 for most of 2020, but said it has been a good plant on the system.

But a scathing report by the PUC released March 1 paints a different picture, one of a chronically malfunctioning unit whose operating and electricity costs have been higher than projected before its 2010 opening. The upfront capital cost projection for Comanche 3 was $680 million, but wound up being $784 million. The plant averaged 91.5 days per year of unplanned outages over the last decade.

“The Comanche 3 plant, not only is it a lemon in what it’s costing the consumer, it’s also polluting other Latinos in Pueblo. I don’t want to see that happen to anybody,” Tafoya said.
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