• Original Reporting
  • Sources Cited
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
The Suncor Energy refinery in Commerce City, Colorado, on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s air pollution regulators have accepted a third party consultant’s recommendations on changes to the Suncor refinery in Commerce City intended to prevent some toxic releases into the community.

The “root cause” investigation was a key part of a $9 million settlement between Suncor and the state Department of Public Health and Environment in March 2020, after years of toxic emissions and air quality violations that affected surrounding neighborhoods. In the settlement, Suncor had to hire a third-party consultant and spend at least $5 million upgrading the big plant to prevent toxic releases. 

The state said Friday it asked for stronger measures than the initial consultant’s report, but is now approving the revised plan. The state said, Suncor will spend $12 million on a new automatic shutdown system by December for a catalytic cracking unit that makes gasoline. The state’s press release said Suncor will also upgrade the shutdown system on another cracking unit by the end of June. 

State health officials praised the plan but also said they would keep watching Suncor, whose operations in recent years have prompted repeated neighborhood protests, environmental justice demands and new air monitoring proposals at the Legislature. 

The plan makes it clear last year’s settlement resulted “in concrete, positive changes at the refinery,” said Shaun McGrath, Director of Environmental Health and Protection at CDPHE, in a statement. “But we know this is just the beginning. Suncor must prove that they can be better neighbors and operate the refinery in a way that is consistent with the law and the protection of public health.”

Environmental advocates who had reviewed an earlier version of the third-party report, which included the $12 million in cracking-unit fixes, called the agreement and proposed changes “Band-Aids.” They have argued that regulators are praising Suncor for plant upgrades the company needs to make anyway, and that the refinery still has far to go to regain trust in the lower-income communities long affected by plant operations. 

The advocates have said they want the refinery gone altogether, not just modified. 

Suncor’s implementation plan says that the catalytic crackers use high pressure and catalysts like clay and sand to make gasoline. If the pressure is not right, catalyst escapes and causes white or white-yellow dust that in past events has coated nearby cars, lawns and homes. Suncor has said the substance is not toxic. The required upgrades since dust-release events in December 2019 and March 2020 should help prevent such releases, Suncor said. 

While Suncor’s plan to address the settlement was accepted, the state is still considering Suncor’s application to renew a general operating permit required for manufacturers who  specified levels of toxic emissions. Suncor’s license to pollute up to the limits has been expired for some time, but the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division allows many companies to continue operating while staff consider the renewals. 

Neighbors, local officials and environmental groups have weighed in at public hearings demanding more guardrails for Suncor’s operations. State air pollution officials are now considering all the comments and will address them before deciding on the permit. 

Michael Booth is the Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of the Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He is co-author with Jennifer Brown of the Colorado Book Award-winning food safety investigation “Eating Dangerously.” Booth was part of teams that won two Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news. He also writes frequently about inexplicable obsessions that include tamarisk, black-footed ferrets and tire fires. Booth also serves as the underpaid driver for four children, and plans to eventually hike every inch of Colorado.