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Settlement Affords Citizen Panel In Colorado The Ability To Buy Air Monitors

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Air pollution affects us all, but there are some places where it appears to affect communities of color a little more than other people. In Colorado, a petroleum refinery agreed to a settlement after years of pollution violations. And now residents are using some of that money to set up air monitors around the plant. Sam Brasch of Colorado Public Radio reports.

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: It's nearly impossible to miss the Suncor oil and gas refinery in Commerce City. The jungle gym of pipes and smokestacks towers over the mostly Latinx community. Armando Guardiola has lived in the industrial suburb north of Denver for almost 50 years, and he worked near the facility often as a railroad welder. Sometimes he'd notice ash falling on his skin and clothes.

ARMANDO GUARDIOLA: (Through interpreter) If there was anything wrong, Union Pacific would have told us about it because they had a lot of safety measures. But they never said anything, so I thought it wasn't bad. But now we know it's bad.

BRASCH: Guardiola is now 67 and retired, weakened by diabetes and a bout with kidney cancer. He's always wondered if they had to do with the city's bad air, but he can't be sure.

GUARDIOLA: (Through interpreter) If I had the chance, I would have left and gone somewhere that doesn't have these problems. But that's not how it went.

BRASCH: Guardiola recently did have the chance to do something about the notoriously bad air pollution in his neighborhood. Last year, Suncor agreed to a settlement for air pollution violations with 2 million going to community projects. He sat on a citizen panel to distribute the money. It voted to fund a proposal from a local nonprofit called called Cultivando to set up its own air monitors unconnected to the government or Suncor. Olga Gonzalez is its executive director.

OLGA GONZALEZ: Perhaps there are people who are doubtful about what we can do, but we say give us a chance and see where we are a year from today.

BRASCH: At a recent festival in Commerce City, Gonzalez laid out the details. She spoke to a couple hundred people gathered in a park with the refinery just visible in the background.

GONZALEZ: So I also thank everyone who's here today, who...

BRASCH: She told them her group plans to build two new air monitors, one stationary site and another mobile unit built into a van. Real-time results will be posted to a bilingual website. She also asked people to sign up to install cheaper monitors inside their homes.

GONZALEZ: This is your project. This is our community's project. And it is our opportunity to hold Suncor accountable and to really empower ourselves collectively to take action to envision the kind of community that we want for our children.

BRASCH: After her speech, a few dozen residents signed up to participate in the project.

Sacoby Wilson is an environmental health scientist at the University of Maryland. He says more places around the country are setting up their own community monitoring networks, some of which he oversees himself. And he's now backing federal legislation to fund even more.

SACOBY WILSON: This is a way to help people connect to the power they already have through increasing their literacy, like, critical literacy on these issues so they can go to their zoning board, they can go to their health board and say, y'all need to do something about this.

BRASCH: A Suncor spokesperson says the company supports all air monitoring efforts. It even has plans to set up its own neighborhood monitors in collaboration with local health authorities. But Gonzalez says many residents aren't ready to trust those results after years of air pollution. She says Cultivando, on the other hand, has an automatic advantage.

GONZALEZ: We already have the trust of community because we look like community. We live in the same communities where we work. Especially our Latino community members, knowing that a Latino-led organization will be looking out for them really makes a difference.

BRASCH: And she thinks it might help residents see air pollution, not as a permanent condition, but something they can understand and change.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Brasch in Commerce City, Colo.

INSKEEP: Colorado Public Radio's Miguel Otarola also contributed to this report. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.