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Colorado issues tough new draft rules on Suncor to limit runoff of dangerous “forever chemicals” into water

State health officials want to crack down on benzene and regulate PFAS “forever chemicals” for the first time at Commerce City refinery.

Sand Creek South Platte River Suncor water quality urban corridor
The Suncor refinery in Commerce City is pictured on Sand Creek near where it meets the South Platte River. Both streams have highly challenged water quality, though many conservationists argue they can get still better. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado will for the first time monitor and limit runoff of PFAS, dangerous “forever chemicals” threatening drinking water across the nation, at Suncor’s Commerce City Refinery as part of a long-anticipated draft of the company’s water quality permit unveiled Tuesday.

The draft of the renewed permit also demands rigorous benzene cleanup and other controls sought by conservation groups, according to state officials who described the plan late Monday. 

Though advocacy groups and neighbors are likely to push for even tougher PFAS limits during a 90-day public comment period on the draft, they also expressed general approval of the Water Quality Control Division’s new restrictions after years of Suncor pollution leaks. 

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“Conservation groups are really excited about a PFAS limit getting into the permit,” though they want state health officials to revise the draft even lower than the national EPA standard of 70 parts per trillion in drinking water, said Becca Curry, Colorado policy advocate for Earthjustice. 

“I’ve asked my colleagues around the nation for any other refinery that has a PFAS limit put into the permit, and I can’t find one,” Curry said. 

PFAS readings in Suncor discharge water have risen well above 1,000 parts per trillion, state officials said Monday. 

Water quality officials detailing the proposed requirements in the permit said they have listened to neighbors living near Suncor and to advocates demanding more accountability for the refinery, which has logged numerous air and water violations for decades. 

“We feel it is a more protective permit than exists today. And we’re very proud of that,” said Nicole Rowan, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s state water quality director. 

A Suncor spokeswoman said Tuesday morning, “We will take time to review the details in the draft water permit and follow the established permit renewal process.”

Now that the draft permit renewal is released to the public, the state extended the usual comment period. After that closes, state staff must then research and respond to the comments. The water quality division is likely to issue a final permit a few months into 2022. Permits last for five years, but are often extended after expiring because state staff has been limited for the most complex permits. 

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Suncor’s air pollution permits are also under review by the health department’s Air Quality Control Division, which has not yet released its responses to public comments. 

In the new water discharge permit, the state said it is looking for the following changes at Suncor: 

  • More intensive monitoring of benzene-tainted groundwater at the site. A clay barrier is supposed to keep the hazardous material from Sand Creek, which runs past the refinery and quickly empties into the South Platte River. 
  • Limits for 50 chemicals the state has now added to monitoring requirements for Suncor’s new permit. 
  • First-time monitoring of hazardous chemicals leaking into the Burlington irrigation ditch that flows north into Barr Lake and supplies water to north metro communities. If chemicals are discovered, Suncor will have to line the Burlington ditch to protect drinking water. 
  • Closed-circuit TV exploration and monitoring of old pipe and reservoir systems throughout the sprawling plant as part of an “all-asset” review alerting state officials to older, potentially forgotten hazards. 
  • Text warnings to neighboring communities when hazardous spills threaten water, similar to a system for air pollution breeches Suncor instituted after past negotiations with the state. 
  • PFAS monitoring weekly at the major “outfalls” of production water and stormwater from Suncor property into Sand Creek. Suncor will be held to the EPA’s national guidelines of less than 70 parts per trillion in discharges. State officials added that the EPA is amid a major PFAS review and could tighten those standards, which the state would then follow. 

Conservation groups are especially excited about the PFAS monitoring, which they say is one of the first efforts by the state to count the dangerous pollution and hold one industrial site accountable for runoff. Environmental groups have analyzed EPA databases showing that Colorado may have far more sites contaminated by PFAS than any other state

Chemicals from the PFAS family — there are thousands of variations — have been used for decades in firefighting foam at hazardous sites like Suncor, as well as countless consumer and industrial products advertising nonstick coatings or lubricating properties. They easily permeate into groundwater and don’t degrade over time. Removing them from drinking water supplies is expensive.

While federal and state officials are still establishing safe human consumption limits for PFAS, the EPA says studies show the chemicals cause “reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals,” as well as tumors. High cholesterol levels in those exposed are also common impacts. 

State officials said Monday they believe PFAS firefighting foam used in the past by Suncor — and still stored on site, according to the state — has contributed to “highly contaminated” groundwater under and around the facility. 

During the public comment period, said water division permits section manager Meg Parish, “one of the big questions we’re asking folks is, are these the right limits? We could change these limits in response to public comment.”


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