A bill to hike fines on air and water polluters in Colorado passed its first committee hearing on a party-line vote Monday afternoon.
House Bill 1143 would raise daily fines for air and water violations to the maximum allowed under federal law, $47,357 per day. The state's current maximum fine of $15,000 per day for most air-quality violations and $10,000 per day for most water-quality violations.
The bill would steer the extra income from fines back into programs in communities most affected by pollution to mitigate the damage, leading some in the four hours of testimony. The hearing amounted to an airing of general grievances by environmental groups against industry, which sat out Monday's hearing.
The House Energy and Environment committee passed the bill 7-4 to send it to the House.
Republicans said it was not a question of whether they supported a clean environment, but rather how the bill is written and involved only Democratic sponsors and collaborators.
"I can assure you air and water is important to everyone in this room," said Rep. Lois Landgraf, a Republican from Colorado Springs.
Liz Rosenbaum, a founder of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition, said it's a matter of perspective.
"Ten thousand dollars is like $10 to these corporations," she testified.
The highest fines target the worst or the worst, officials said Monday, implying few will see the higher bar environmentalists are expecting from the bill.
"The majority of fines we levy are below the maximum, reflecting often that the violators didn't cause any particular environmental damage, even though they were violating the law," said John Putnam, the director of the Department of Public Health and Environment’s environmental programs. "There could be other mitigating factors — that they cooperated in self-disclosing, they were cooperative in fixing the problem, there are a number of factors we apply under our penalty policies, so these top levels of fines are really reserved for those are most culpable, who cause the most harm and who have the most culpability from a moral or violation perspective."
The bill is sponsored by Democratic Reps. Dominique Jackson and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, both of Denver, and Sen. Faith Winter of Westminster.
Jackson quoted statistics on settled cases involving hundreds of state violations in recent years that showed "more than one or two bad actors here."
She read a long list of industries and trade groups sponsors worked with to craft the bill.
"We believe this policy is the best policy to move the state forward and protect the health and safety of everybody in Colorado," Jackson said.
Rep. Mike Weissman, a Democrat from Aurora, said penalties could be a means to curb habitual and serious offenders, "and it has to be more than the cost of doing business."
A group of medical professional spoke on behalf of the bill Monday afternoon, speaking to the environmental effects on breathing, pregnancy and cancer.
Jan Douglas spoke on behalf of the Sierra Club and from her 25 years as a family doctor, she said.
"It is only just that fines on polluters who put whole communities of low-income and minority people at risk of significant health issues should be high enough to stop them from polluting," she told the committee. "The funds from these fines should work to mitigate the environmental damage already done."
Rep. Larry Liston, a Republican from Colorado Springs, asked environmental advocates if they were concerned that the fines might drive out employers.
"They cost us more money than they contribute," responded Sunshine Benoit of the environmental group 350 Colorado. "They cost hundreds of millions of dollars in medical expenses a year, as well as damage to the communities themselves. For me, if they moved, it would be a good thing, because we would be saving money and have an opportunity to bring in better jobs to that area."