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Environment

Six months after historic Suncor settlement, community around Commerce City refinery still feels “exploited”

The oil company began surveying the community on Wednesday, but continued issues at the refinery have neighbors feeling skeptical

A Suncor Energy billboard on Vasquez Boulevard. Sept. 11, 2020. (Lucy Haggard, The Colorado Sun)
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Six months after Suncor Energy agreed to a landmark $9 million settlement for repeatedly violating air quality standards, Coloradans have the opportunity to formally tell the company how they really feel — or at least, what they think of its communication style.

The energy company on Wednesday began surveying neighbors of its Commerce City refinery to find out how they want to be notified when the refinery violates its air quality permits in the future. Previously the company has posted updates on Facebook.

The survey, facilitated by Denver-based FTI Consulting, is offered in English and Spanish and can be accessed either online or over the phone. Focus groups and community forums will round out the outreach efforts, which will stretch into October.

The outreach efforts are part of a settlement Suncor reached with the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment for air quality violations from its Commerce City refinery that occurred from July 2017 through June 2019, as well as in December 2019. The settlement  announced in March included $4.05 million in penalties and funds for community projects, the highest a single Colorado facility has ever been charged for air quality violations.

“First things first, we want to listen and we want to engage and hear from the community and do a better job, and be a better neighbor,” said Lisha Burnett, Suncor’s manager of communications and stakeholder relations. “We want to improve, and we want to do the work to improve.”

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Commerce City Mayor Benjamin Huseman said he’s heard that refrain before. At an Aug. 17 city council meeting where Suncor Vice President Donald Austin joined to discuss a recent boiler failure at the refinery, Huseman minced no words, saying he and the community feel like “a battered spouse” under Suncor’s repeated violations and subsequent apologies.

“I want to believe when people say they’re going to get better,” Huseman said in a phone interview last week. “But if you tell me you’re going to get better and two months later the same exact thing happens again, after a while it’s hard to believe that you’re going to get better.”

As the only petroleum refinery in Colorado, the Commerce City plant processes about 98,000 barrels of jet fuel, gasoline and asphalt every day. Most of the jet fuel for Denver International Airport and a significant portion of the Front Range’s gasoline comes from the refinery. 

Huseman said he knows it’s not feasible to try to shut it down, given the plant’s economic importance to the region. 

“The frustration that comes is, because we have a need, that need is exploited,” Huseman said.

Suncor Energy’s Commerce City refinery. Sept. 11, 2020. (Lucy Haggard, The Colorado Sun)

Since the settlement, the refinery has had more incidents, including yellow clouds of smoke released just two weeks after the settlement was announced, as well as elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide — noticeable to passersby for its signature rotten egg smell — when a boiler broke down in August. In 2019 alone, the Commerce City refinery had 75 separate “upsets” in which more chemicals were released than its permit allows. 

“One resident summed it up best when they said they’ve just gotten to the point where they’re just indefensible,” Huseman said. “You can’t go out there and defend what they’re doing, because it’s just one incident after another after another.”

Before this year’s settlement, Suncor had been fined more than $3.6 million for violations since 2010. The plant will be 90 years old next year; Suncor bought part of it in 2003 and has owned the refinery in its entirety since 2005. 

Another $2.6 million or so of the settlement will go specifically to community environmental projects directed by state and local leaders, focused on surrounding neighborhoods such as Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. A request for ideas that ran throughout August to Sept. 3 garnered 49 submissions. The exact projects will be discussed at Monday’s Commerce City council study session — but they do not have to specifically address air quality issues. 

Other aspects of the settlement include bringing in a third-party contractor to research how to change the refinery’s infrastructure to limit future violations, as well as have the refinery monitor emissions more closely.

For now, though, the focus remains on notifying Suncor’s neighbors. Huseman, a self-identified optimist, says it’s all about being transparent with the community.

“If they were to actually take the time to explain that process and explain what they’re doing,” Huseman said, “I think they can actually start to develop a little bit of trust and develop a little bit of confidence in what’s going on.”

Two laws from this year’s legislative session take aim at similar air quality violation issues. One law, which will add to the results from the Suncor settlement, mandates that when a facility releases an excess of hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide or benzene, they must communicate it to the surrounding area, including using a reverse 911 system. This would apply to Suncor in addition to whatever communication methods it determines to use with the community based on the settlement. The other law triples the maximum fine the state can levy for air quality violations to $47,357 per day from $15,000.


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