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

The EPA notified Colorado health department officials Friday that it will formally object to parts of the Suncor Refinery’s operating permit renewal because the state may have improperly exempted three flaring systems at the plant. 

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in February issued a long-overdue permit renewal for Suncor after months of hearings and reviews, then passed it on to the EPA for final review as required by the federal Clean Air Act. 

“EPA is directing CDPHE to further evaluate these flaring sources to determine whether they are exempt from monitoring requirements, or other determination methods, to confirm flaring equipment is operating in compliance with applicable limits over time,” the EPA’s notification said. 

An EPA cover letter to the state said the federal agency was also “providing CDPHE with comments and recommendations related to environmental justice and (civil rights) issues involving the permit, the community surrounding the Suncor facility, and the state’s air permitting program.”  

Those further requirements include criticism that the state’s process “deprived the public of meaningful participation” in making modifications to Suncor’s permits. The EPA also has questions about  documentation on whether Colorado has met Clean Air Act attainment targets. 

“The objections and recommendations we are sharing today reflect EPA’s continuing focus on Clean Air Act compliance at the Suncor facility and a strong commitment to public health, engagement, and equity for nearby residents and their communities,” said EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker, a former Colorado House speaker. “We will remain focused on working with the state to improve this proposed permit as well as the overall effectiveness of air quality permitting in Colorado.”

State health officials said in a statement, “We welcome the EPA’s feedback on the draft permit and appreciate their continued partnership. Throughout this process, we have adjusted the permit based on community and expert feedback, knowing that we need various perspectives and fresh eyes on this permit. Now is no different.”

CDPHE officials said they “plan to be responsive to the EPA’s feedback, which includes additional analysis on a permit condition as well as actions outside of the permit. We have 90 days to respond and make necessary changes, a deadline we plan to meet.”

A Suncor spokesperson said the Commerce City refinery is “reviewing the EPA’s recommendation and will continue to follow established permit processes.”

Environmental groups had not expected the EPA’s move, and were pleased.

“It is a bold move by EPA in the sense that they really don’t object to these types of permits very often,” said Robert Ukeiley, an environmental health attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “However, EPA and Colorado have still not done the required analysis to see if Suncor, along with all the other polluters impacting the overburdened north Denver communities, is creating pollution levels in our air above the science-based standards. We are going to keep pushing until that happens.”

Ean Tafoya, Colorado director of GreenLatinos, said, “What I’m not surprised at is there are problems at Suncor. We’ve been saying that for a long time.” Usually, Tafoya added, “disproportionately impacted communities don’t have everyone walking with us, and it seems like now they are.” 

This story was updated Friday afternoon, March 25, 2022, with additional comments from environmental groups and Suncor. 

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.