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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. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

Neighbors and environmental advocates pleaded with state air pollution regulators over the weekend to deny or severely limit permits for Suncor Energy’s metro Denver fuel refinery, offering their own modeling showing the proposed permit will violate EPA caps and extend a record of tainting the region.

Endorsing the major oil and gas refinery in a renewed state permit would be an affront to both neighbors who have suffered from health effects caused by local polluters, and to state laws seeking cuts to greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade, the objectors said. 

Addressing the Air Quality Control Commission Saturday morning at the first of two public comment sessions, dozens of speakers said Suncor has not earned the draft permit drawn up by staff of the Air Pollution Control Division, even after spending millions recently to clamp down on emissions into surrounding neighborhoods. 

“Every child in Colorado deserves to live, learn and play in a healthy and safe community,” said Shaina Oliver, a northeast Denver resident and local organizer for pollution cleanup. “They are demanding justice in every breath.” 

Many speakers reminded the AQCC of Suncor’s history of releasing dangerous pollutants like benzene and hydrogen cyanide, which periodically have coated surrounding neighborhoods in ash-like material. Suncor once further enraged residents by offering car wash coupons in the neighborhood affected by the chemical coating. 

“It’s time for us to end the cycle of problem, apology, repeat. Problem, apology, repeat,” said Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio. The Suncor facility is at the south edge of Commerce City in Adams County, and also affects residents of the Globeville-Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods of north Denver. 

Suncor vice president Donald Austin opened the permit hearing by acknowledging past releases of chemicals and said the company “takes its responsibilities seriously.” Austin said the plant, which refines oil into gasoline for vehicles, aviation fuel and other industrial uses, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on improvements in recent years that will limit accidental releases of chemicals and improve Suncor’s pollution record. 

Austin also said Suncor has improved the refinement of fuels to make the fuels themselves less polluting when burned in vehicle engines, and changed processes to lower the number of truck trips in and out of the area by hundreds per day. 

Flaring at Suncor’s stacks has been adjusted to burn up more dangerous pollutants before releasing them into the air, and wastewater channels have been covered to reduce evaporation of volatile organic compounds, which contribute to metro Denver’s EPA-violating ozone levels, Austin said. 

Environmental advocates who want the state to rewrite or block the new permit said Suncor will actually be releasing more of some dangerous chemicals under the proposed plan than it had been allowed to previously. They also said APCD once again appears to be permitting projected violations of EPA one-hour emission standards for certain chemicals, the same accusations made by departmental employee whistleblowers who have filed a formal complaint with the federal agency’s inspector general. 

“Despite the whistleblowers’ complaint of the agency’s own experts, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment continues to illegally ignore polluters like Suncor which cause violations of the health-based air pollution standards,” said Robert Ukeiley, environmental health attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, after Saturday’s hearing. The AQCC will hear from the public again Tuesday by remote link, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. 

 “Because of Colorado’s failure, we had to do our analysis which proves that Suncor does cause violations of the standards for asthma-causing air pollution,” Ukeiley said. 

APCD officials have said in the past they are obligated to approve permits if applicants say they will fall below EPA limits for certain key pollutants. Environmental advocates say permitting is no longer that simple, and passage of HB 1261 in 2019 forces state officials to take more health factors into account. 

The state legislation required APCD to take into account the disproportionate health impacts of pollution and climate change when setting pollution limits, said Kate Merlin of WildEarth Guardians. Studies have shown lower income and minority residents, who often live closest to air pollution sources like refineries, major highways and other industries, suffer from asthma, heart disease and other ailments at higher rates than in other neighborhoods. 

“Suncor is a poster child facility for environmental racism and the kind of mega-polluter that should have been dismantled and cleaned up years ago,” Merlin said, after her remarks to the AQCC. “Along with Rocky Flats and Rocky Mountain Arsenal it’s a relic, and it’s just as shocking that we ever allowed it to operate. In addition to over 800,000 tons of air pollution, it’s been emitting tons of hydrogen cyanide every year into communities where families live.” 

It’s unclear how much the permit as drafted can, or will, change as a result of the public outcry at this week’s hearings, or from the whistleblower allegations, which were brought up frequently. The AQCC, whose commissioners are appointed by the governor, hosts the hearings but does not control individual permits. The air pollution control staff is required to consider the public comments before finalizing the permit. 

Given the public interest in the Suncor proceeding, AQCC commissioner Michael Ogletree extended the acceptance period for written comments for another week. 

In her statement, Maryah Lauer noted the increased awareness of social justice in pollution discussions at a time when the APCD is under fire for allegedly failing to model or monitor industrial pollution adequately. 

“Good neighbors don’t poison each other,” Lauer said. “We clearly cannot trust the Air Pollution Control Division to do its job and act in the public interest. Any permit beyond their work capacity should be denied, rather than rubber stamped. The time to retire this refinery is long overdue.”

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...