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Suncor oil refinery agrees to $9 million settlement with Colorado for air quality violations in Commerce City

The deal with Colorado’s health department includes $2.6 million in projects to improve environment and health in the adjacent neighborhoods most affected by violations, including Globeville and Elyria-Swansea

Suncor's refinery, located in Commerce City, near Denver, is the largest refining operation in the Rocky Mountain region with a capacity of 90,000 barrels per day. (Photo by Suncor Energy, via Flickr)
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Suncor Energy will pay $9 million to settle air quality violations at its refinery in Commerce City dating to 2017, including one in December that blanketed adjacent neighborhoods in an ashy substance.

It is the biggest penalty Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has ever leveled from a single facility to resolve air pollution violations.

“Our number one goal is to get facilities back into compliance as quickly as possible and to keep them there,” John Putnam, the agency’s environmental director, said Friday as he announced the deal at a news conference. “… However, when that does not happen we rely on our enforcement tools to bring facilities back into compliance, deter future violations and ensure a level playing field for all businesses in Colorado.”

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The settlement includes $4.05 million for community environmental projects, including $2.6 million in spending that will be directed by the state health department and members of the surrounding communities by people in neighborhoods, such as Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, who were affected by the violations.

“It’s not only about holding the violators accountable. It’s also about repaying the community,” Colorado Air Pollution Control Division Director Garry Kaufman said. “The community around the refinery suffers disproportionately from air pollution sources including the Suncor refinery. And the people in the area suffer health effects from those violations.” 

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Calgary-based Suncor owns and operates a 229-acre complex in southwest Commerce City where it produces about a third of the gasoline used each year by Colorado drivers and most of the jet fuel required by Denver International Airport. The company processes about 98,000 barrels of oil daily, mostly from drillers along Colorado’s Front Range.

The company also makes asphalt from heavier crude brought by truck and train to Colorado from Canada. About 500 people work for Suncor in Colorado, most of them at the refineries.

On the morning of Dec. 11, two surrounding schools were put on lockdown after a plume of orange-ish ash spewed from the Suncor Oil Refinery into surrounding neighborhoods. In a statement released on Facebook later that day, the company called the event an “operational upset” and said the visible substance was a clay-like material called “catalyst” that is classified as non-hazardous.

John Putnam, director of environmental programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, announces their $9 million settlement with the Suncor Oil Refinery in Commerce City for air quality violations dating back to 2017.

“We can do better, and we will do better,” said Donald Austin, vice president for Suncor’s Commerce City refinery, during a phone interview after the news conference on Friday.

He added: “We take the health and well being of our neighbors seriously, as well as our employees. I believe the way to go forward is with the transparency of data from the refinery and working with the health department to use that data and correlate it with what we’re seeing in the health of individuals.”

In addition to the December release and related opacity violations that month, the settlement addresses two Suncor enforcement cases that occurred between July 2017 and June 2019.

The health department says Suncor emitted volatile organic compounds in excess of its permit, including sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter, which the EPA says can cause breathing problems for people with asthma, children and older adults. 

The settlement also includes an independent investigation that focuses on the process and procedures that lead to the excess emissions events that occurred during the two-year time period, said Shannon McMillan, compliance and enforcement program manager in the state’s Air Pollution Control Division.

Suncor has also agreed to undertake additional and increased monitoring of hydrogen cyanide emissions, both at the refinery and in the surrounding community, and will implement an improved communication system for notifying the community when their facility is “experiencing issues of community concern.”

Suncor Energy’s 229-acre campus in southwest Commerce City. Calgary-based Suncor produces about a third of the gasoline used each year by Colorado drivers and most of the jet fuel required by Denver International Airport. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

“We view this as an important opportunity to hit the reset button for Suncor and its operations at that facility, as well as its relationship with the community,” Putnam said. “We look forward to the opportunity to engage with the community to really flesh out the details of those environmental projects as well as a communication plan moving forward.”

The settlement announcement comes a week before the Colorado House Energy and Environment Committee will hear the first discussion about House Bill 1265, which aims to increase public protections for air toxics emissions. 

Another measure being discussed at the Capitol is House Bill 1143, which would nearly triple to quadruple penalties for air and water quality violations and to send the collected fines directly to the communities that are impacted by environmental violations.

If the bill becomes law, it would not impact the $9 million settlement with Suncor.