Environmental justice nonprofit Mothers Out Front Colorado has received a two-year, $50,000 grant for its Clean Air Pueblo project that organizers have launched to better inform Puebloans about local air quality.
The Pueblo nonprofit had sought the Windward Fund grant so it could fund the Clean Air Pueblo project that seeks to improve the area’s air quality data, said Jordan Mecham, a community organizer with the group. It started the project in May 2022 but didn’t receive funding for it until January.
Jamie Valdez, a Pueblo resident and environmental activist, is also a community organizer for Mothers Out Front Colorado and said in a news release Pueblo has been historically used as a “sacrifice zone for bottom-of-the-barrel polluting industries.” Sacrifice zones are areas that expose people to harmful chemicals and other environmental threats because they live in close proximity to polluting industries, according to The Climate Reality Project.
Valdez also said Puebloans don’t know how perilous the air is in the area because information about it is “obscure.”
“There is so much we don’t know about air quality in Pueblo and often the data collected by public agencies isn’t readily available to the public,” Jane Fraser, a coordinator for the project and former professor at Colorado State University Pueblo, said in the release. “We plan to make all our data available in real time. We want people to be able to see the health trade-offs Pueblo may have made by accepting polluting industries in return for jobs and tax revenues.”
The nonprofit used some of the grant money to purchase 18 air quality monitors, five of which will be operated by members of the team and placed in different locations across Pueblo. It has one monitor that is on top of Fountain Elementary, but it only provides yearly data.
The rest of the monitors purchased are expected to be dispersed to Puebloans or business owners who want to participate in the effort. Those monitors will track particulate matter 2.5, or fine inhalable particles that can induce adverse health effects, Mecham said.
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That data then is expected to be available through IQAir, an animated and interactive live map that displays up-to-date air quality index (AQI) readings for different places across the world. Then, the Clean Air Pueblo team wants to post the data on a website it creates so people can access it there, too.
Pueblo County on that map has multiple readings across a few areas, but its data is limited compared to places such as Denver or Colorado Springs. The city of Boulder, which has a more comparable population to Pueblo, also has more air quality index data.
Meacham said it’s common for Pueblo to be ignored.
“Nobody really looks at us in an environmental way and we get used a lot,” he said. “That just sucks and we want to change it. We want to empower the community to know about their air.”
Mecham said Pueblo’s air quality data is lacking compared to those larger cities because there’s likely less demand for it and reporting from polluting industries either is limited or not accurate.
To help mitigate that shortcoming, some involved with the Clean Air Pueblo project plan to map out Pueblo and determine where the largest polluters are so they can best decide where monitors should be placed.
One of those polluters is the Xcel 3 Comanche coal plant, Mecham said, which will close by 2031. The Colorado Sun in 2021 reported that Goodrich Carbon, from its Pueblo plant, self-reported that it discharged 5,440 pounds of benzene into the air in 2019.
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Exposure to benzene is linked to higher risk of cancer, particularly leukemia, according to the American Cancer Society. Mecham said Clean Air Pueblo wants to identify what in the air could be contributing to health disparities that have surfaced in Pueblo.
With the data being generated by members of the community, Mecham said the Clean Air Pueblo team hopes that information will help persuade legislators or state agencies to pursue better standards to protect Pueblo’s air.
“We can take an approach that says we have captured this data, not the state or these corporations that are polluting us,” Mecham said. “We’ll know what’s in the air and we can take the next step in making sure our air is clean.”
Mecham and her team — there are three teams included in the project — want to design surveys and other outreach activities to increase participation in the project and learn what Puebloans know about air quality and where they get that AQI data. The other two teams helped select and purchase the monitors and are working to make the data they collect publicly accessible.
The surveys are expected to be sent out at some point in April and applications to express interest in using one of the monitors will be available later in the month, Mecham said. The team’s hope is to launch the website that will have AQI data from those monitors in June.
Chieftain reporter Josue Perez can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @josuepwrites.