The Denver Post

Review: Too little guidance from EPA

- By Conrad Swanson

State health officials say they don’t have enough guidance from the Environmen­tal Protection Agency to know when to estimate whether smaller polluters in Colorado exceed air quality limits on particulat­es, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

That lack of guidance led to the state’s Air Pollution Control Division issuing multiple air quality permits to facilities that predictive models showed could violate federal pollution standards, according to a report published Friday by the Colorado Attorney General’s office. Division managers “did not intend to violate the law,” the report said.

However, division manager Garry Kaufman did not disclose conflicts of interest that he had with a Teller County gold mine for two and a half years, the report stated. And while three whistleblo­wer’s allegation­s in March of fraud and suppressio­n were unsubstant­iated, the report said, Kaufman’s order that sparked the allegation­s was based on “insufficie­ntly justified” or “incorrectl­y applied” informatio­n.

The state started the investigat­ion by national legal firm Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP about three months after receiving the complaint from the whistleblo­wers, who work for the

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environmen­t. The three alleged Kaufman ordered managers to tell employees not to review or model estimated emissions at smaller facilities for the two gases or particulat­es less than 2.5 micrometer­s, which contribute to unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone.

The employees also alleged CDPHE was “suppressin­g informatio­n” and “approving air quality permits” that models showed would violate national air quality standards — the latter of which was substantia­ted.

With the help of Maryland-based organizati­on Public Employees for Environmen­tal Responsibi­lity, the whistleblo­wers said in the complaint that Colorado fosters a culture of approving permits for industrial polluters “at all costs” and to the detriment of public health.

Gov. Jared Polis and CDPHE Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan asked Attorney General Phil Weiser in April to investigat­e the whistleblo­wers’ allegation­s and tapped the law firm in July to lead the probe.

“The report does illustrate the need for more scientific­ally sound criteria and better processes for when to model minor sources,” Hunsaker Ryan told The Post.

Hunsaker Ryan also said the report highlighte­d a lack of EPA guidance. EPA representa­tives did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The report showed federal guidelines for smaller polluters are sometimes unclear, and that CDPHE held two conflictin­g policies for them. One policy that Kaufman backed was “based on an unsupporte­d extension of EPA’S permitting threshold for existing major sources,” the report said. The other, supported by the whistleblo­wers, was “well-supported by technical analyses, but overly conservati­ve.”

Neither position was “wholly right,” said Shaun Mcgrath, director of CDPHE’S environmen­tal programs.

But Kaufman won out, causing the division to issue permits to facilities that models had shown would exceed federal pollution standards, leaving the potential violations “unaddresse­d.” Friday’s report noted that those permits weren’t issued out of an “intent to circumvent the law.”

In addition, the whistleblo­wers specifical­ly alleged fraud and suppressio­n with the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mine in Teller County, where they said predictive models showed violations for nitrogen dioxide and particulat­e emissions. That’s the site where Kaufman had a conflict of interest.

“A CDPHE modeler was ordered to falsify data in a modeling report regarding this facility to ensure that no modeled violation would be reported,” the whistleblo­wer complaint said.

Friday’s report called those claims “unsubstant­iated” but noted that the basis for the changed models was based on flawed informatio­n. That’s a thin distinctio­n, PEER attorney Kevin Bell said.

“There’s a pretty hazy line between the incorrect applicatio­n of facts and the falsifying of data or the fraudulent use of informatio­n,” Bell said.

Before working for the state, Kaufman worked for a legal firm that represente­d the Newmont Corporatio­n, which owns the Teller County gold mine, the report said. He lobbied state officials in 2014 to issue the mine an air quality permit, and in early 2017 joined CDPHE, where he was responsibl­e for reviewing and “providing substantiv­e comments” on the mine’s permit applicatio­n.

Kaufman didn’t recuse himself from the permitting process until August 2019, before the final permit was issued.

Mcgrath spoke highly of Kaufman and said he will remain director of his division. Kaufman did not immediatel­y respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Chandra Rosenthal, who is the Rocky Mountain Field Office director for PEER, said Friday: “They’re really sticking by (Kaufman), huh?”

Rosenthal said state officials have known for years that employees had concerns about how smaller facilities are monitored, and acted only after the whistleblo­wer complaint went public. She emailed Hunsaker Ryan in September 2020 about the issue specifical­ly.

Obtained by The Denver Post, the email from Rosenthal mentions the oil and gas company Sandridge Exploratio­n and Production’s Bighorn Pad facility in Jackson County.

The attorney general report notes that the Bighorn Pad facility was permitted despite 2017 modeling indicating that emissions could be more than six times higher than federal limits.

“Thank you for the thoughtful input and request to the Department,” Hunsaker Ryan responded to Rosenthal’s email. “… Please allow the Division a couple of weeks to review in more detail your request and circle back with you.”

PEER attorney Bell said the Bighorn Pad facility is just one example of many that exemplify the state’s culture of approving permits “like they’re going out of style.” Mcgrath pushed back on that Friday, saying the state is “leading the country” in protecting its air quality.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States