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

Colorado air quality officials have approved a permit renewal for portions of Suncor’s refinery in Commerce City, prompting vows from community officials and environmental groups to keep fighting the permit at the EPA and in court. 

The EPA now has 45 days from Feb. 8 to review the updated permit conditions and either approve them or object to state officials. Suncor’s operating permit for the Plant 2 section of its petroleum refining operations expired years ago, but state health officials allowed them to keep operating under the conditions of the expired permit. 

If the EPA does not object, environmental opponents said they will use Clean Air Act provisions to file their own protests and push the federal agency to reject the permit. 

“Our primary concern remains that Suncor is incapable of complying with any permit and therefore should not be granted the privilege to pollute,” said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians, one of a wide group of community and environmental advocates who have long challenged Suncor’s emissions of potentially toxic substances into the air and water. “We’ll be tracking EPA’s review, and we plan to petition them to object if they don’t do so.”

WildEarth Guardians won a court victory in January when an Adams County district court judge said the state was deliberating too long on Suncor’s expired permits and must act “without delay.” 

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reviews of operating permits for Suncor’s other facilities, Plant 1 and Plant 3, are ongoing. 

In sending the revised permit over to the EPA, state officials said they are tightening restrictions on Suncor, which refines vehicle fuel and aviation fuel, among other products. 

“Under the law, CDPHE has authority to strengthen emissions monitoring and reporting standards in the permit, and the department used that authority to significantly strengthen the permit,” according to a state release.

State air quality officials said they:

  • Required Suncor to post continuous emissions monitoring data
  • Added stricter monitoring requirements for the refinery’s sulfur recovery plant and fluid catalytic cracking unit
  • Added measures to verify hydrogen sulfide emissions from the sulfur recovery plant
  • Increased monitoring for permitted limits on opacity

Michael Ogletree, director of the Air Pollution Control Division, said the changes to the permit will “protect public and environmental health and be responsive to Coloradans.”

Suncor officials said in a statement that they were still reviewing changes to the multi-page draft permit. They emphasize that in addition to settling past state emissions investigations, they have made voluntary efforts like the Commerce City North Denver (CCND) Air Monitoring Program that makes monitoring results available to the public.

Neighbors and environmental advocates made it clear after the announcement, and previously in a series of public comment periods, that they don’t trust Suncor or the state officials monitoring the plant, which is one of the state’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases and local ozone-creating pollution

“For years, CDPHE has left residents in the dark about the harm Suncor is causing to North Denver and Commerce City communities,” said Marta Darby, senior attorney for Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain branch. 

Advocacy groups say the neighborhoods of Commerce City and North Denver around Suncor and the nearby Cherokee power plant are primarily low-income and minority communities, and that they suffer from high rates of asthma, heart disease and other pollution-related ailments.

“The agency has utilized unreliable data to estimate Suncor’s pollution and has failed to closely scrutinize the company’s operations … under the federal Clean Air Act. Now is the time for the EPA to step in and put the health and well-being of residents first by objecting to this permit that maintains the status quo,” Darby said.

The state says federal laws require approving air pollution operating permits like Suncor’s if the company’s application shows it will meet limits on various pollutants. 

Robert Ukeiley, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who has called for a complete shutdown of the refinery, said the state’s modeling of Suncor’s individual construction permits show violations of air standards. 

The state’s “theory on why they can get away with doing nothing has already been rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, so it is really bad faith and needlessly continues to endanger the community,” he said.

Air quality officials should be conducting a comprehensive impact analysis showing Suncor’s contributions to all forms of pollution, from greenhouse gases to volatile organic compounds and ozone, said Micah Parkin, executive director of the climate change nonprofit 350 Colorado. Suncor’s emissions should be a big target for the climate change legislation passed in 2019 requiring 50% cuts to Colorado’s greenhouse gases by 2050, she said. 

“If we’re going to live up to our commitments, then we ought to be thinking about starting to wind down fossil fuel facilities,” Parkin said. 

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...