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Over a dozen organizations and community members gather near the Suncor oil refinery at Fairfax Park to celebrate the environmental justice project EcoFiesta to help transition beyond Suncor’s pollution to a safe, healthy and just environment on July 18 in Commerce City. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Suncor refinery in Commerce City faces pointed community skepticism in its plan for state-mandated pollutant monitoring at the boundary of the property, while Democratic politicians weighed in Wednesday that they want even more oversight. 

Suncor told the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, neighbors, local politicians and activists at public hearings that new monitors required for 2023 will add to Suncor’s own community notification system, as well as a community-run mobile system funded by a settlement between Suncor and the state. 

“The proposed fence line monitoring plan is only one part of Suncor’s commitment to monitoring” pollutants, said Bernd Haneke, a senior environmental specialist at the petroleum refinery.

Suncor is the first of four Colorado companies required to install monitoring for three pollutants — benzene, hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen sulfide — under House Bill 21-1189. Also required to monitor for pollutants and make the results public are a Phillips 66 fuel terminal in Commerce City, a Sinclair Trucking fuel facility in Henderson, and the Goodrich Carbon aircraft parts plan in Pueblo. 

Neighbors and environmental activists testifying in two public hearings on Suncor’s proposal said more monitoring is better, but that they feel scarred by the refinery’s past pollution incidents

“There’s so much more to do still,” said Lucy Molina, who described herself as an impacted resident of Commerce City. “I mean, there’s only three pollutants that are being monitored. … This is the beginning step. This is the beginning step for justice.”

Monitors detecting pollutants as they leave the fence line of industrial locations like Suncor and other Colorado companies, as part of a state law taking effect in 2023, will look like this. (Suncor photo)

Resident and activist Renee Millard-Chacon noted language in the law and other recent bills guaranteeing environmental justice for neighborhoods heavily impacted by past pollution. “That monitoring data should be released as soon as possible for any known or immediate harms for our communities,” Chacon said. “Honestly, I live in Commerce City and my son deals with bloody noses to this day.” 

In presenting the plan to the state, Suncor said “Data from the network will be reported and displayed in near-real time on a bilingual website accessible to the public,” and that the site will include information on health hazards from exposure to the pollutants.

The monitoring law also requires notifications to be sent out if pollutants exceed emergency thresholds, Suncor added, but the state has not determined those thresholds. 

While the state health department reviews Suncor’s monitoring proposal, Democrats U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette are asking federal officials to carefully review the state’s approval of Suncor’s operating permit renewal.

In separate letters, Bennet and DeGette said the EPA should ask tougher questions about whether Colorado officials approved too many “major” modifications of Suncor operations as a series of “minor” adjustments. Bennet and DeGette want the EPA to audit the proposed permits to recategorize those changes and therefore make the refinery “subject to more stringent pollution control requirements” under the Clean Air Act. 

DeGette, a Denver Democrat, chairs a U.S. House subcommittee that directly oversees the EPA. Bennet’s office says the letters were not coordinated — DeGette’s went to U.S. Administrator Michael Regan, while Bennet’s went to new Regional Administrator KC Becker, a former state legislator.

The lawmakers’ letters reflect the years-long arguments of Colorado environmental groups, who have demanded the state try harder to cut into both Suncor’s greenhouse gas emissions and local pollutants including benzene and hydrogen cyanide. 

The state has said its recent approval of one Suncor operating permit includes tougher monitoring provisions and other safety measures. Neighbors and environmental justice groups say it’s still not enough. Bennet asked that the EPA also provide more technical assistance to CDPHE staff monitoring Suncor emissions. 

“The Suncor refinery has a well-documented multi-year history of non-compliance with emissions limits,” Bennet’s letter said. 

Suncor responded Wednesday that the refinery “continues to follow the established processes for the Plant 2 Title V operating permit. We continue to make improvements to reduce the environmental impact of our operations.”

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver