This is part of a Moms Clean Air Force series about the health impacts of methane:
Shaina Oliver, North Denver, Colorado
Shaina Oliver is a mother of four boys and a member of the Navajo Nation. She descended from people who were targeted for genocide when the US government took their land and forced them to relocate under the Indian Removal Act in the mid-1800s.
For Shaina and her community, the genocide has not ended. It continues today in the form of environmental injustice. Historical and existing policies have taken their toll on the health of Indigenous people, who have some of the highest rates of asthma, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, leukemia, adverse birth outcomes, and premature death than the general population. Shaina’s grandfather was one of the Navajo men who mined uranium without protective gear prior to the passage of workplace and environmental laws. He suffered from asthma and died of leukemia. Shaina was born prematurely, with a low birth weight, and diagnosed with asthma as an infant. Later in life, she was diagnosed with a birth defect. Her youngest son has asthma.
In North Denver, a majority of the affordable housing is near a number of toxic industries, like the Suncor oil refinery, one of the oldest refineries and one of the largest air polluters in the state. Shaina’s family lives within five miles of Suncor. Shaina is working hard to get protections for the communities living close to the refinery. Many of the people living near the refinery experience nausea, migraines, bloody noses, and other short-term health effects.
People living near the Suncor refinery also worry about the long-term health effects. The refinery emits climate-warming methane; volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including cancer-causing chemicals like benzene; fine particles that get lodged in lungs and cause premature death; and other pollutants into the air. The area also includes an abandoned hazardous waste site, highways and busy streets, and industrial parks, which add to the cumulative health burdens on families, who are mostly Latino.
For more than 10 years, government officials allowed Suncor to operate on a permit that had expired under the Clean Air Act. The company has a long history of polluting above permitted levels and self-reported that it emitted 800,000 tons of pollution in 2019, including two tons of benzene. Also in 2019, the refinery rained yellow debris onto two nearby schools, requiring the students to shelter in place. Suncor offered families free car washes, as if exposure to this unknown substance did not call for physical examinations and possible medical care.
In 2020, Suncor paid $9 million to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as part of a settlement for its repeated air quality violations and toxic emissions. Shaina was on the community panel that voted to use some of the money for air quality monitoring, though she was deeply concerned that funding was provided for only a year. Cultivando, a nonprofit serving the Latino community, is leading on community air monitoring, including air monitors in homes, in mobile vans, and around the refinery. This effort is essential for transparency and restoring trust between the community and the government.
As EPA considers ways to incorporate air monitoring results generated by community groups into its standards, the efforts around Suncor provide a useful model. Having EPA recognize third-party methane emissions modeling estimates based on data, rather than relying on the oil and gas industry’s self-reported estimates, gives a more accurate picture of the methane pollution problem. The financial burden for air monitoring should fall on the industry, not the residents. The purchase and use of proven monitoring technologies, such as frequent aerial surveys and infrared technology (FLIR), at oil and gas operations is the least the industry can do to supply accurate and timely information to surrounding communities.
On Tribal lands, Native Americans are vulnerable to the health effects of oil and gas pollution. The oil and gas industry dumps millions of tons of air pollutants into our air each year, and on Tribal lands alone, this mix of pollutants includes 18.4 billion cubic feet of methane.
Shaina and other moms have been the driving force behind laws and rules in Colorado that lead the nation in cutting methane emissions from oil and gas facilities. New rules include the nation’s strongest leak detection and repair program, a prohibition on venting during maintenance activities, and more frequent inspections for well sites in disproportionately impacted communities and well sites that are less than 1,000 feet from residential communities. EPA should look to Colorado’s efforts as it seeks to strengthen nationwide standards for reducing methane, one of the quickest ways to slow the pace of climate change.
But Colorado is also taking steps backward. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved over 10,000 permits from 2018 to 2022, which will only create and expand sacrifice zones. “What’s missing from decision-making is Indigenous inclusion and Indigenous knowledge,” Shaina says. “Indigenous people lived without extraction and exploitation for 10,000 years. We need to do better for the generations to come. This includes enforceable protections on public health and the environment that respects Indigenous concerns on community well-being”