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Carman: Suncor’s days of beguiling regulators and befouling our air at last may be numbered

EPA finally has started paying attention, thanks to intense pressure from environmental organizations, community advocates and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette.

There’s a new sheriff in town and, unlike the friendly folks at the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, she’s not here just to make nice with environmental outlaws.

When former Colorado House Speaker KC Becker was named administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 8 office last fall, she promised to further the Biden agenda to “address climate change, repair aging water infrastructure and drive down methane emissions.”

Last month, she gave a master class in just how that is done.

Diane Carman

After years of signing off on toxic emission levels that violate the Clean Air Act, the EPA overruled CDPHE’s decision to allow the Suncor refinery in Commerce City once again to continue flaring excess gas without adequately monitoring its emissions.

It was a stunning recognition of a glaring injustice.

What Suncor has done for decades is dump toxic chemicals into the air across Denver and into the homes and the bodies of people living nearby, specifically in the neighborhoods of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, all with the official blessing of CDPHE and previous EPA administrations.

The fact that the residents in those neighborhoods have historically been mostly low-income Latinx families says a lot about why this devil-may-care attitude about a serious threat to public health has been tolerated. 

I mean, imagine if Suncor were sending clouds of poison into the Polo Club neighborhood. It’s unthinkable.

But since it’s North Denver, Suncor has been allowed to continue flouting federal law and operating with an expired permit since 2011. The last full-fledged operating permit issued to the refinery was in 2006.

Since then, the refinery has repeatedly been exempted from various air quality requirements and excused for malfunctions producing excessive releases of noxious pollutants and plumes of weird yellow dust that the company insists are harmless. 

That may be true, but honestly, why would anyone breathing funny smelling air laden with yellow dust believe that?

To make matters worse, CDPHE has brazenly approved the frequent exemptions to Clean Air Act regulations without allowing sufficient opportunities for public comment despite years of complaints from people in the community that they were being ignored.

EPA finally has started paying attention, thanks to intense pressure from environmental organizations, community advocates and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette.

It’s been a long time coming.

Marta Darby, senior attorney at Earthjustice in Denver, said efforts to bring Suncor into compliance during the Trump administration were frustrated at every turn. Trump’s EPA was “dismissive” toward concerns raised by Earthjustice attorneys and others on behalf of the community.

“It’s significant that now the EPA says it is concerned about disproportionate environmental impacts,” she said. That’s a sea change. 

“And it’s a wonderful point for the community to rally around and keep the heat on CDPHE.”

Alexandra Schluntz, associate attorney at Earthjustice, said she expects the impact of the EPA’s action to be significant and long-lasting. “This should serve as a wakeup call for CDPHE,” she said. 

While the community has been tenacious, passionate and determined in its opposition to exemptions for Suncor, DeGette also deserves credit for raising concerns to the EPA. 

She ratcheted up the pressure in a letter last month requesting the EPA conduct an audit of the Suncor permit exemptions, noting that  CDPHE had described them as “minor modifications” under the Clean Air Act. 

She said there really was nothing minor about them.

Apparently, the EPA agreed.

In announcing the agency’s rejection of the Suncor deal, Becker called upon CDPHE to allow the public to participate in the process for evaluating the refinery’s flaring practices. It ordered the agency to take the community’s concerns seriously. 

“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,” she said.

It’s about time. 

Now, brace yourself for the blowback.

Since the Suncor refinery is a major producer of gasoline and aviation fuel, and petroleum prices have increased dramatically this year, the usual suspects will argue that this is no time for regulators to impose costly safety requirements on a poor beleaguered transnational fossil fuel corporation. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

On the contrary, the timing is perfect. 

In one recent quarter — the last quarter of 2021 — the Canadian corporation reported $1.53 billion in profits with revenues up 68% over the same period in 2020. Since then, crude oil prices have increased by more than 40%.

So, money is not an issue. The real issue is justice.

It’s past time for Suncor to start operating lawfully and stop forcing the community to shoulder the burden of its production costs so its shareholders can rake in higher profits.


Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.


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