After months of deliberation, a panel of Adams County and North Denver residents has decided the first projects to receive a portion of fine money from Suncor Energy, an oil and gas company operating a refinery in Commerce City.
The selections show the community wants additional trees, land stewardship and new air testing to catch any future pollution Suncor releases into the largely Latinx community around the facility.
“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,” said Olga Gonzalez, executive director of Cultivando, a Commerce City community group and the panel’s choice for the largest share of the grant money.
More than a dozen governments and community groups applied for the money. To decide between them, the state convened an 11-member panel including nine community members, a representative from Suncor and a representative from the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.
Cultivando will use the funds to build an independent air monitoring network around the facility. The decision nearly marks the end of a process that began in March 2020 when Suncor agreed to a $9 million settlement with state air regulators after repeatedly violating air quality standards. Of that total, $2.6 million was set aside for community projects.
The evaluation committee whittled down the plans through a series of votes. In the end, the panel awarded nearly $1 million to Cultivando. The nonprofit will use the funds to set up a stationary air monitoring station near Suncor and a mobile van to track emissions in the surrounding neighborhood. It will also conduct smaller-scale air monitoring at homes to help teach residents about potential air quality impacts.
The Cultivando plan comes as both Suncor and the legislature plan to finance new air monitors near the Commerce City facility, the state’s only refinery. While Gonzalez applauds those efforts, she said the community doesn’t trust the state or the company after decades of air pollution problems.
The Cultivando network will monitor more than 50 other air pollutants, including benzene, hydrogen cyanide, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. Gonzalez said it is unclear if similar state or corporate efforts will offer the same level of detail.
The panel selected three other projects for funding on Monday. In addition to the Cultivado proposal, the committee approved plans to help Tierra Colectiva, a community land trust, to acquire and maintain small parcels of land in north Denver too small for housing. Projects to plant trees and improve air quality at schools and libraries also received funding.
The committee has yet to allocate around $350,000 from the Suncor settlement. A decision is expected at a final meeting on April 26.
Editor’s note: Suncor is one of CPR’s financial supporters. This article has also been updated with a corrected description of Tierra Colectiva's winning project.