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As Suncor permits come up for renewal, advocates see chance to push for pollution cuts at Commerce City refinery

An independent review required millions in safety shutoff spending to stop refinery leaks, but neighbors and advocates want more emission controls.

Suncor Energy’s Commerce City refinery is pictured from Vasquez Boulevard on Feb. 22 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Advocates who want big changes in how Suncor operates are gearing up for re-permitting hearings in early May, even as the Commerce City refinery touts new safety installations it says will help limit future pollution. 

The state Air Quality Control Commission will hold public hearings and take comments on the draft permit for Suncor from the Air Pollution Control Division on May 1 and 4. Neighbors and environmental advocates want state officials to further rein in the controversial facility. 

“We are legitimately trying to lay the groundwork that the permit should be denied, that the facility can’t possibly operate in compliance with environmental regulations,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, which has followed Suncor issues for years. 

Suncor refines gasoline, aviation fuel and other petroleum-derived materials, and has been a frequent target of neighbors, environmental advocates and regulators for chemical emissions that threaten the air and groundwater. Benzene and other petroleum-related chemicals from Suncor are some of the most toxic substances in any industry. Suncor says it is spending heavily to better control pollutants and keep neighbors informed. 

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Community and social justice groups say Suncor is just one of many major polluters across Colorado that have harmed the health of minority and low-income residents of north Denver, Pueblo and other neighborhoods for decades. The groups feel they are better organized than in the past and connected to key lawmakers to bring new voices to the fight. 

“People are more willing to speak out against these environmental and climate injustices,” said Xochitl Gaytan, co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum and among the advocates this year for stronger pollution-control legislation at the state Capitol. “Folks have been living with these health ailments for so long. And then they’re exacerbated by the pandemic, so now we’re seeing this extreme of people feeling like if they don’t say and do something now, it could be too late.”

Suncor is heading into the public hearing phase of the re-permitting process armed with a new independent report it paid for, detailing physical plant improvements at the facility that are meant to control leaks and halt operations if leaks are imminent. 

The report was part of a 2020 settlement with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for past pollution violations. The report by Kearney, a consulting group, says the refinery is designed “to meet environmental permits and is adequately funded,” but also called for safety improvements. 

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. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

The review looked closely at the refinery’s fluid catalytic cracking units for producing gasoline, and sulfur recovery units, which transform poisonous gases into usable sulfur. High pressure in those units can contribute to leaks and cause the kind of white dust and flakes falling on the surrounding neighborhoods of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea that have infuriated residents. Suncor has said that dust is a nonhazardous catalyst

The implementation plan from the Kearney report calls for updated automatic shutdown equipment at Suncor’s Plant 1 and Plant 2, at a cost of $12 million, which Suncor notes is well above the $5 million spending ceiling in the settlement. Suncor said in the report it is undertaking other voluntary measures to improve operations and community relations. 

Suncor also implemented a voluntary alert system neighbors can sign up for when a toxic release occurs. 

Neighborhood groups and environmental allies are seeking stronger legislation this year requiring fence line toxic air monitors at Suncor and other major polluters, with real-time information available to communities and researchers. 

The state’s Air Pollution Control Division of the public health department said it was still reviewing the Suncor report, but noted the settlement was the largest in Colorado history to resolve air pollution violations from one location. The report spotlighted important problems, and made clear an independent investigation was “crucial,” officials said. 

The overall settlement included $9 million from Suncor for the state and neighbors to spend on environmental projects and monitoring, in addition to the requirement of an independent review and new equipment spending by Suncor.

Those who have protested Suncor’s emissions for years said the report identified important technical problems, but didn’t go far enough. 

“I’m not sure how investing in overdue plant upgrades that were identified by a report that was required as part of a settlement in response to numerous emissions events is supposed to regain community trust,” said Rebecca Curry, Colorado policy advocate for Earth Justice. 

Advocates see the public hearing process as their next opportunity to force changes to how Suncor operates. Nichols and others want Suncor closed for good, though they acknowledge it’s unlikely. 

“They seem to be spending time and money on Band-Aid fixes, when the real problem seems to be something more systematic and foundational at that refinery,” he said. “Things that can’t be resolved without some massive rebuild. We don’t want a better refinery, we want them gone, frankly.”

MORE: Read more environmental coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Short of that, environmental groups are completing technical analyses of the draft permits in hope of demanding lower limits on emitting hydrogen cyanide, among other toxic pollutants, as well as tighter monitoring of how and when emissions are burned off in “flaring.” 

Neighborhood advocates will also detail in their testimony the impacts of toxic emissions on asthma rates, pneumonia and other ailments in the surrounding areas, as well as point out that many lower-income and Latino residents have been essential workers during the pandemic. Previous reports have noted extra vulnerabilities to the COVID-19 virus in neighborhoods experiencing higher respiratory illness. 

“It’s not about living with them, or without them, it’s about Suncor and lawmakers doing the right thing,” Gaytan, of the Latino Forum, said. “And the right thing being that the appropriate or stricter guidelines are set in place so that companies like Suncor, and any other company in the state of Colorado, follow the guidelines, and aren’t putting not only the Latino community in danger but the rest of the population of folks that live in and around companies that are releasing these types of air toxins.”

Suncor said it supports the permitting process and the public hearings. 

“Our request for modifications to the Title V Permit for Plant 2 encompasses approximately 40 modifications that were submitted over time, from 2009 to 2020,” the refinery’s statement said. “Some were made to improve our overall operations while some are there to implement the latest environmental regulations that were specifically designed to help control emissions at all petroleum refineries.”

Clean air advocates say they are frustrated by the permitting process itself, which they argue has tilted in favor of approval and supporting industry needs for many years. Their arguments were bolstered recently by a group of whistleblowers inside the Air Pollution Control Division who went public with charges that their superiors were ignoring or overriding EPA requirements in permitting, and issuing new approvals “at all costs.” 

The hearings in May take place in front of the appointed Air Quality Control Commission, though it’s the division’s full-time staff that reviews permits, conducts computer modeling of potential emissions and asks for modifications or approves the permits. The commission has no legal role in approving the permits, Nichols said. The advocates and neighborhood groups will instead try to influence the commissioners’ future setting of rules and monitoring. 

While state officials have said they follow federal and state rules in policing air pollution like that from Suncor, Nichols said advocates will ask them to go beyond the minimum and shoot for regulation that actually protects residents’ health. 

“Here is the opportunity, if you were ever going to show the people of Colorado you care, Suncor permitting is it,” Nichols said. “This is going to be a big test. This is where we see whether the Polis administration walks that walk.” 
Information on participating remotely in the public hearings, and how to sign up to make comments, is available here.

CORRECTION: This story was updated April 21, 2021, at 8:10 am to correct the date of the second Air Quality Control Commission hearing on the Suncor permit. Hearings are May 1 at 8:00-10:00 a.m., and May 4 at 6:00-8:00 p.m.


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