One hard-hit community measures its own air quality
A lack of trust means this group is setting up their own air monitor data downwind of Colorado's last refinery
(Recent data from one of Cultivando’s home air monitors in Commerce City)
A few months ago I read a Colorado Sun article about new grants awarded to community groups for local air monitoring. The grants, from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, are meant to help local communities do third-party monitoring of air quality, especially in areas where a factory or refinery has a history of pollution concerns. Some of told the Sun the grant will allow them fill in the gaps where they say the state is not doing enough to monitor dangerous emissions.
In Colorado, the air quality grants were awarded to seven groups, all local nonprofits or local government agencies. I wanted to hear from one of these groups about why doing their own air monitoring is so important and what they planned to do with the data. Cultivando, a non-profit that works with the Latino community in Adams County, received $500,000 from the EPA.
The areas where Cultivando works — Commerce City, as well as Globeville and Elyria-Swansea on Denver’s north-east side — are nearby the Suncor oil refinery.
Cultivando actually started their monitoring after the refinery was fined $9 million for more than 100 air pollution violations in 2019 — the state’s largest penalty for a single facility at the time. Part of that money was offered to community groups to fund environmental projects — Cultivando was one of the selectees.
They have a permanent monitor about a mile north of the refinery and another mobile monitor that will eventually become permanent to the southwest of Suncor. They also do air sampling where community members report strong odors and started a home monitoring program for particulate matter with real-time air monitors (this is the same type of data my former colleagues used to track how wildfire smoke affects air quality at the San Francisco Chronicle).
This new EPA grant will allow them to continue that work longer, and improve their data, Cristina Ruiz, a promotora for the group says.
“What changed is that we can do air monitoring for a longer period,” Ruiz says, adding it will extend their monitoring for another year. “This will help us gather more consistent data on the number of pollutants that are being emitted into the air daily.”
The group considers themselves health equity advocates for their community, not necessarily environmental activists, but air pollution is a major health concern. Even more importantly, they are directed by the needs of their particular communities - which Ruiz describes as “neighbors to big pollution sources.”
The group was repeatedly hearing from residents that the smells from the refinery, as well as recurring symptoms like migraines and asthma for children, were among their top concerns. And they wanted to do their own monitoring.
“Many in the community don’t have trust in the monitoring by the state or by Suncor, so this really makes them feel they are getting reliable information,” Olga Gonzalez, executive director of Cultivando, told CPR when they won the first grant in 2021.
(Suncor itself actually shut down refining right before Christmas due to damage from extreme weather conditions — and says it will restart later this month, but it is still venting and has reported leaks in the meantime)
So what are they looking for? The stationary and mobile monitors sample air for particles of particular volatile organic compounds (VOCs): benzene, methane, sulfur dioxide and toluene, among others.
“All of them concern me but mostly benzene because it is the one that has a higher probability of causing cancer,” Ruiz says.
They also record in 15-minute averages, not 60 minute averages. Cultivando chose this range to capture shorter periods where the concentration of pollutants is dangerously high. Short spikes of pollution can’t be disregarded if they happen consistently enough to add up, they add.
What are they doing with this data?
Cultivando hopes to make an analysis of what they’ve captured so far public soon, but they also have made more immediate action based on the data. During times of particularly high emissions of their target VOCs, they’ve texted the community to alert them, hopefully allowing people to stay inside, especially people already more sensitive to air pollution.
Want to see what this looks like? You can see their permanent and mobile monitor data going back a week at this link.
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