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Colorado’s toxic emitters revise their leakage numbers below tough thresholds in law

Companies say earlier reported levels were inaccurate. But lack of independent monitoring means what polluters say, goes, and environmental advocates are furious

Suncor Energy’s Commerce City refinery is one of a handful of Colorado businesses targeted by special environmental legislation of toxic emissions. Three of the companies -- Goodrich Carbon, Sinclair and Phillips 66 -- have edited their emissions reports to get out of the rules. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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In 2020, Goodrich Carbon, a maker of aerospace technology, told the federal government it leaked 5,440 pounds of benzene into the air from its Pueblo factory the year before, subjecting the southern Colorado city to one of the most toxic chemicals on Earth. 

Early this year, Goodrich and high-volume toxic emitters like it were about to fall subject to an emissions law passed in 2020, and were fighting off another even tougher effort at the Colorado legislature. 

The 2020 law said emitters of more than 1,000 pounds of benzene — a component of petroleum and coal that causes cancer, bone marrow failure and other illnesses — had to set up hazard alerts for their neighborhoods when they had a sudden leak event. The second law under consideration at the statehouse, currently proposed as House Bill 1189, would require companies at that same level of toxic emissions to set up fenceline monitoring at their plants, and offer the readings to researchers and the public. 

So Goodrich Aerospace filed revisions with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in January, and forwarded those to the state’s Air Pollution Control Division in early March. That 5,440-pound total? That was a mistake, Goodrich officials said. They moved the decimal over a few places and said that, in fact, it had emitted only 32 pounds of benzene in 2019. 

“Therefore, Goodrich Corp. Pueblo facility does not meet the definition of a ‘covered facility,’ and is not subject to” the law, the new filing said. The older number, 5,440 pounds, was still visible in the EPA Toxic Release Inventory database as recently as last week. 

Because thresholds in the state law rely on what companies self-report in the federal database, for benzene and a list of other toxic chemicals, and because there is no independent monitoring, whatever Goodrich says is what goes. Other Colorado companies did the same.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Goodrich’s letter made similar self-revisions for benzene for 2017 and 2018, and for hydrogen cyanide in 2017 through 2019. The changes to benzene all brought the numbers below the statutory threshold and freed Goodrich of any reporting obligation to the public under the 2020 Colorado law, House Bill 1265, or the proposed 2021 bill on fenceline monitoring.

A statement from Goodrich Carbon in response to questions about the revisions said the company discovered a miscalculation after replacing old equipment. The new equipment emitted far less benzene, the company said, and therefore the previous reporting was wrong. 

“When the state notified us we would be part of the new toxic release program, we conducted an internal audit in 2020 of our toxic release inventory and found we had over-reported some of our pollutant levels,” said a statement from Al Killeffer, senior manager of external communications for Goodrich parent Collins Aerospace, itself a North Carolina-based subsidiary of international giant Raytheon. 

“In 2005, we began transitioning to new, more efficient boilers at our Pueblo site. This multi million dollar investment in new boiler technology allowed for better mitigation of pollutants, including benzene. During our audit, we found that we had been calculating our toxic release levels based on emissions factors associated with our old boilers and had not been taking credit for the new, cleaner boilers,” the statement said. 

“Once we revised our calculations to reflect the new technology, our reported levels fell commensurately. The new boiler technology is so much more efficient than the old boiler technology at pollution control that we have seen orders of magnitude drops in pollution levels. These improvements have been verified by actual testing of the emissions from the stacks of the boilers and were not just estimates,” according to Goodrich. 

Goodrich/Collins said it did not know if the EPA tried to independently verify the new numbers before accepting them into the database. “Ultimately we’d defer to the EPA for comment, but they certainly have the ability to audit our corrections at their discretion,” Killeffer said.

The Colorado Sun sent EPA representatives questions about the companies’ revisions and whether the agency verifies them with independent analysis or monitoring. The EPA responded with a statement saying it does “quality checks” of the reports, and that the companies must give reasons for their revisions. 

Environmental activists, neighborhood groups and sponsoring legislators say such chemical facilities have polluted the air and water around their sites for decades without government control. They are now fighting for a series of new laws and permitting oversight that will cut those emissions and provide more information to neighbors and scientists about what exactly they are putting in the air. 

Two other major toxic emitters in Colorado, the Phillips 66 petroleum products terminal in Commerce City and the Sinclair Oil Corp.’s Denver Products Terminal, made similar revisions, bringing their releases under the thresholds that were originally written into the bills to specifically target the two of them, as well as Goodrich and the Suncor refinery. 

Suncor’s Adams County refinery, the fourth major emitter targeted by the bills, did not make revisions to its EPA reporting. Environmental activists who track Suncor believe the company could not make the revisions because it is subject to a tougher EPA rule for refineries that requires fenceline emissions monitoring, and release of those results to the public. 

The proposed 2021 bill, requiring fenceline monitoring of toxic emissions and sharing of that data with the public, is scheduled for a first hearing Thursday in front of the state House Energy & Environment Committee. 

Colorado environmental activists said the reliance on self-reporting is nationally recognized by watchdogs as a failure of transparency and accountability. 

It’s incredible, Earthjustice attorney Rebecca Curry said, that the Colorado companies can “just decide, ‘Oh I don’t want to be covered by that legislation.’ The  law allows them to go in and change their grade or to grade themselves.” Earthjustice is a national environmental law nonprofit helping Colorado groups fight toxic emissions. 

Curry said she had to agree when she read another environmental advocate calling the entire EPA Toxics Release Inventory a bunch of “wild-ass guesses.” 

Advocates infuriated by the self-reported revisions say they will now amend their new bill to shed the emissions thresholds and make the law apply to all refineries, aircraft parts makers and anyone reporting any level of benzene emissions in the past. 

The Phillips 66 petroleum products distribution terminal in Commerce City was also one of the large toxic emitters targeted by both the 2020 law and the 2021 bill. 

The Commerce City Phillips terminal first reported to the national EPA database that 2017 benzene emissions at the site were a total of 1,010 pounds, according to data taken from the database by Earthjustice. (When the EPA accepts revisions and enters them into the database, the previous numbers can disappear from the Toxic Release Inventory reports.) 

The Phillips November 2020 revision set the amount of 2017 benzene releases in Commerce City at 723 pounds. 

A spokesperson for Phillips 66 in Colorado sent a statement about their revisions: 

“After evaluating our TRI emissions reporting for the Phillips 66 Denver Terminal, we discovered a data-entry error that led to overreporting of some emissions data for the years 2015-17. In November 2020, we reported the error to the EPA through the agency’s E-Disclosure process and to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). Phillips 66 has corrected the error and recognizes the importance of accurately reporting emissions.” 

Sinclair’s Commerce City distribution terminal originally reported to the EPA that benzene emissions were 1,000 pounds in 2017, 2018 and 2019, according to Earthjustice compilations.

In December, Sinclair filed a revision of those numbers with the EPA and forwarded them to the Air Pollution Control Division, changing the 2017 benzene emissions to 988.3 pounds. The new reporting requirements outlined in the Colorado bills look back to 2017 as the first year setting the threshold. 

The Sinclair revisions also set 2018 benzene emissions at 945.7 pounds, and 2019 at 974.8 pounds, again just below the 1,000-pound threshold in the state law. 

In the December revision, Sinclair said its previous 1,000-pound disclosure for 2017-19 was a “range,” and it now had specific, measured release numbers. “The only changes made were to input actual numerical release quantities in place of the range codes. These revisions show the reported releases of benzene, for each of the 2017 through 2019 reporting years, to be less than 1,000 lb/yr,” the email to the state said. 

A spokesperson for Sinclair did not respond to questions about the revisions Wednesday.

The Colorado Air Pollution Control Division said, in response to questions about the revisions and whether it had tried to verify them, “The Toxic Release Inventory is a federal program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, and so the federal government sets reporting rules. The Air Pollution Control Division doesn’t have specific authority related to these regulations.” 

The EPA declined an interview about its revisions policy, instead issuing a statement saying it “conducts extensive data quality checks for the annually submitted data” in the TRI system. An example the statement gave was a company reporting a number far different from previous years and the EPA calling the company suggesting they check it. 

“Note that facilities that do revise their original reporting forms must indicate the reason(s) for the revision in their reporting form,” the EPA said. 


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