By Trish Zornio
Cultivando, a nonprofit advocacy group that spearheaded air monitoring near the Suncor Energy refinery, has confirmed they have pulled out of a $500,000 air monitoring grant awarded by the Environmental Protection Agency. The grant was awarded last fall and was expected to extend the air monitoring program for at least one more year.
The Executive Director of Cultivando, Olga Gonzalez, stated the decision was based on changing community needs and what made sense for the organization moving forward.
“(It’s) a combination of many things,” Gonzalez said in a phone interview with The Denver North Star. “We’re refocusing our efforts.”
Gonzalez explained that after more than six months of working to secure the grant, the organization had come to feel the EPA grant came with “ridiculous” amounts of paperwork, administrative efforts and unnecessary bidding requirements. Gonzalez added that due to these burdens, the small group had already exceeded their allotment of the grant funds making further efforts too difficult.
An EPA spokesperson acknowledged Cultivando’s decision.
“EPA cannot waive federal grant requirements that would allow Cultivando to sole source through one air monitoring provider,” read a statement to The Denver North Star. “Cultivando must also complete a quality assurance plan to ensure valid air quality data is collected which is a requirement for federal grants.
“EPA has been offering Cultivando support as they attempted to work through these issues and we will continue to work with them in the future to see what other resources we can provide,” the statement continued. “The agency has been an active partner in providing funds and resources for successful air quality projects to community groups and health departments across the region.”
Asked if the decision was final, Gonzalez appeared firm. The EPA said if Cultivando would have moved forward with the air monitoring grant, they would continue to provide support to work through the federal grant requirements. Otherwise, the unutilized grant funds will be returned to the EPA and made available for a future air monitoring grant competition.
The unexpected decision is already having immediate effects. According to the lead scientist at Boulder AIR, Detlev Helmig, who partnered with Cultivando to conduct the air monitoring, the monitoring equipment was turned off yesterday due to lack of available funds moving forward.
“This now means that the air monitoring that was conducted for a bit over a year will be terminated,” Helmig stated. “Over the past year we have identified a plethora of operations in the Commerce City that release air pollutants into the air that previously had not been recognized or been regulated. All these emissions cumulatively cause the poor and unhealthy air in Commerce City, a community with a mostly ethnic minorities. Without the monitoring we will not know if any of these sources are going to be addressed and if emissions reductions for the benefit of cleaner air will happen or not. The emissions may just continue with business as usual.”
Gonzalez admittedly she shared Helmig’s concerns, but also emphasized the community’s increasing distrust in government after what they felt has been decades of inaction.
“There are concerns,” said Gonzalez. “We won’t be able to provide reliable data to the community. But the community also feels no one is listening to the data. How much data is enough? We’re monitoring but to what end?”
In response to learning of Cultivando’s decision, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued a statement, stating “The division has valued Cultivando’s air monitoring and referenced the data frequently. The division also offered a letter of support for Cultivando when the organization applied for the federal air monitoring grant.
Since the Environmental Protection Agency announced that Cultivando was one of the recipients, the division has continually offered to assist Cultivando with getting the necessary technical support to move forward in securing that federal funding… the division hopes to continue this important partnership, and will continue to support Cultivando if it chooses to seek additional funding for air monitoring in the future.”
Regarding the future of air monitoring in the Commerce City area, CDPHE cited their ongoing commitment to using available air monitors through the division and Suncor, adding that a new mobile air monitoring station was added in January per updated laws.
No agency or group was able to confirm a potential timeline or if the air monitors used by Boulder AIR might be able to resume under other funding.
Gonzalez remained adamant the group would continue, but would refocus their efforts on community education and policymakers. “We’re proud of what we’ve done, she said. “We’ve provided our results to agencies and the community. Now it’s time for action.”
This story is developing and will be updated.