I was primed by environmentalism in my professional and personal life through my studies in marine science and experience working in wildlife ecology and conservation.
Despite all my studies, I still can’t understand how our environment continues to be destroyed without addressing the consequences this has on human health. As a new Colorado resident, it is the first time in my life that I am not only pursuing climate work but also seeing firsthand the pollution that is contributing to exacerbating climate change in my own community. I fully understand how our world is all interconnected — wildlife biology, conservation, climate change, environmental justice, pollution from emissions and health concerns are all intrinsically and systemically related. For example, according to Hispanic Access Foundation’s recent report, the same non-white communities facing nature and biodiversity loss are also more likely to be overburdened by air pollution and climate impacts. We must take the necessary steps as a nation to address these issues through an intersectional lens. Limiting dangerous emissions is an important start.
When I first drove by Suncor, an oil refinery in Commerce City outside of Denver, I realized it is literally in the middle of a predominantly Latino community that is being severely impacted by the pollution it creates. While the community is incessantly advocating for either the removal or regulation of Suncor, they are constantly met by resistance. Suncor continues to pollute our air, negatively affecting not only the environment, but the overall health of the community. You can see the pollution coming from the refinery and lingering in the atmosphere around it and the surrounding neighborhoods.
According to the latest research, particulate matter is one of the largest environmental causes of health issues and premature death. Even the emission thresholds that the Environmental Protection Agency have deemed safe could still be deadly with continuous exposure. Benzene, a cancer-causing compound that has no safe level of exposure according to the World Health Organization, is just one of the compounds Suncor emissions pollute the surrounding community with. In fact, in 2012, Suncor was fined $2.2 million for extremely high emissions of benzene. The refinery is also known to be one of Colorado’s largest sources of greenhouse gasses, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Living in Colorado has made me implement lifestyle changes that are directly related to the pollution and devastating effects of climate change. As an avid outdoorist, it’s become a habit to check the air quality and pollution levels before heading to hike in the mountains. Even with the necessary precautions, there have been times when my friends and I have had to end our adventures early due to headaches, difficulty breathing or even nosebleeds possibly due to poor air quality. Beyond that, with climate change getting worse, wildfires are getting worse as well. In Louisville, I live in an area susceptible to wildfires — another climate impact that Latinos are more at risk of facing than other demographics. In addition to physical damage, the smoke from these fires contributes to the pollution in the air further poisoning our environment and communities’ health. Ironically, extreme weather and wildfires recently forced a temporary shutdown of Suncor itself.
If I’ve learned anything in my years in the environmental space, it is that a healthy environment matters. It matters to understand how everything is connected. It matters to understand that these issues are multifaceted and that the solution must be too. It’s not enough to say we should just close refineries like Suncor. Instead, we need to focus on intersectional and intentional change that centers and uplifts the voices of the communities at the frontlines of climate change. A start would be stricter limitations on emissions of air pollutants, including particulates, benzene and methane, and heavier consequences for offenders dictated by the Environmental Protection Agency, but we also need legislation that puts the communities who suffer from the effects of the climate crisis at the forefront.