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The Suncor Energy oil refinery on July 18, 2021 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

State air pollution officials must decide on long-stalled emissions permit renewals for the Suncor Refinery in Commerce City “without delay,” a state District Court judge ruled.

One of Suncor’s two key permits was supposed to be renewed by the state Department of Public Health and Environment after expiring in 2012, the other in 2018. A 17th Judicial District judge agreed with WildEarth Guardians, which brought the lawsuit, that Colorado law requires the state to act on permits within 18 months of receiving renewal applications from companies like Suncor. 

Environmental groups lauded the ruling, saying it may force the state to reckon with one of Colorado’s largest emitters of air pollution and greenhouse gases. Suncor has been cited repeatedly by regulators for toxic emissions into air and water, and in 2020 agreed to a $9 million settlement with the state for some violations

“This ruling is a critical rebuke to the Polis administration’s practice of putting polluters over people,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “It means we can finally be certain that Suncor will be held accountable to meeting up-to-date clean air safeguards, operating in compliance with all laws and regulations, and protecting neighboring communities.”

Nichols said he would have preferred a stated deadline by the judge, but said the ruling makes it clear Suncor must be “the highest priority” of the state Air Pollution Control Division. 

The state Air Pollution Control Division said in a statement, “Because we are still reviewing the judge’s ruling and determining next steps, we won’t be able to provide comment at this time. We have been working diligently to process Suncor’s permit applications, and will continue to do so.”

The refinery, where gasoline, jet fuel and other petroleum products are made, has also become an important ongoing battleground in efforts by neighbors and environmental justice advocates to force out industries or public works projects they say have been historically dumped on lower income neighborhoods with large minority populations. 

Suncor sits amid a tangle of heavily trafficked interstates 70, 25 and 270, which contribute to asthma rates, and is also near the Metro Wastewater plant whose discharge creates much of the flow for the South Platte River through north Denver. Surrounding neighborhoods like Globeville and Elyria-Swansea also suffered from historic pollution from metal smelting operations.

“This is exactly what environmental injustice looks like,” said Ean Tafoya, Colorado state director for GreenLatinos, which supports the lawsuit and other actions against Suncor. Until now, Tafoya said, there has been “no accountability for major polluters that rain toxic emissions on communities that have been advocating with the government for years to protect their health.” 

Opponents of Suncor claim the refinery has continued to violate emissions laws even after the state settlement, and while the state had delayed final decisions on the permit renewals. Emitters of certain pollutants in Colorado must have a state permit to do so, and regulators can change the amounts of pollutants allowed each year. 

The judge’s ruling notes that Suncor completed one of the renewal applications in 2010, and the other in 2016.

A Suncor spokeswoman said in a statement, “we continue to make improvements to reduce the environmental impact of our operations and have voluntarily implemented an enhanced air monitoring program to improve transparency and accessibility of air quality information for the community.”

Early results of that monitoring, Suncor said, show emissions have been below acute health impact levels.

The Air Pollution Control Division posted notice of a draft of a permit in February 2021, and has taken extensive public comments on that draft. The division has not said when it would be ready with next steps on the renewal. 

Gov. Jared Polis has included hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding for state air pollution regulators in his proposed 2022-23 budget now under discussion at the legislature. Some of the increase was meant to bolster hiring of people both modeling proposed pollution limits and monitoring pollution once permits are issued. 

Judge Teri L. Vasquez’s ruling said state officials “assert that the Suncor Refinery is the most complex industrial facility in Colorado and as such its operating permits are equally complex. They also assert that they have historically struggled to adequately staff the Title V permit program. Neither of these assertions act to provide a defense.” 

Now that environmental groups have won the ruling, Nichols said, “Suncor’s pollution permits must be denied given their chronic failure to comply with clean air laws.”

This story was updated the evening of Jan. 18, 2021, to include comments from Suncor and state officials.

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.