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

Colorado air pollution regulators have issued one of the Suncor refinery’s two long-delayed permit renewals, while also strengthening rules on how the company must carry out a new air monitoring law to protect neighbors

The EPA also signaled it no longer objects to the Plant 2 permit for Suncor after the state made some revisions. But clean air advocates who have long fought Suncor’s high-pollution presence in Commerce City just north of Denver said they will renew efforts to block the permit. 

“As Suncor continues to spew asthma-causing pollution in north Denver, which impacts the whole north Front Range, the Center for Biological Diversity, along with a broad coalition of community and environmental groups will very likely petition the EPA to object” to the renewal, said Robert Ukeiley, a senior attorney in Denver for the center.

“​​We’re weighing our options, but we remain very concerned about Suncor’s horrid track record of compliance.  The malfunctions and upsets are really just nonstop,” said WildEarth Guardians’ Jeremy Nichols. He pointed to an Aug. 16 notification from Suncor of a nine-hour excess emissions event for hydrogen sulfide related to flaring. Hydrogen sulfide is one of the toxic substances a new state law requires Suncor to monitor for at its perimeter fence and disclose excess emissions to the public. 

Suncor has two permits from the Air Pollution Control Division. Suncor submitted a renewal application for Plants 1 and 3 in 2008, and that is still under review by the division. Many Colorado polluters are allowed to continue operating under the conditions of expired permits while the state works through a backlog of dozens of applications and renewals.

Suncor, which primarily refines gasoline and asphalt from petroleum at the Commerce City complex, is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in Colorado. The state-issued permit also has specific limits on individual pollutants such as nitrogen oxide or sulfur dioxide. 

The state gave a nod to the permit for Suncor’s Plant 2, which Suncor sought to renew in 2010, earlier this year. But the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency objected to the state approval, asking state regulators to look again at their requirements on how Suncor burns off or “flares” emissions at different locations, among other federal review requests.

“After review of CDPHE’s proposed permit changes, the EPA is satisfied that the changes bring the Suncor Plant 2 title V operating permit into compliance with the issue raised in the March 25, 2022 title V objection and considers the objection to be resolved,” the EPA said, after reviewing Colorado’s revisions. The public petition period to object with the EPA ends Oct. 11, regional spokesman Richard Mylott said. 

Suncor said it has received the Plant 2 renewal from the state, effective Sept. 1, and did not offer further comment. As for the new plan for monitoring emissions that leave Suncor’s fence line toward the neighborhood, required by House Bill 1189, the company said it “supports air monitoring. The refinery has received the Colorado Department of Health and Environment’s feedback on its fence line monitoring plan and is in the process of reviewing it.”

The state on Aug. 18 said after incorporating public comments and staff reviews, it was sending the required air monitoring plan back to Suncor with additional requirements. Colorado is demanding Suncor report data on 14 different compounds emitted beyond the borders of the plant, in addition to the three required in the 2021 law that targeted Suncor and a handful of other emitters of toxic substances. The three chemicals originally targeted by the law were benzene, hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen sulfide. 

Other changes Colorado wants from Suncor to stiffen the air monitoring include: 

  • Additional monitoring resources to fully encompass the refinery complex, and to make air monitoring continuous. The new requirement includes an additional monitor along Brighton Boulevard, and more advanced equipment to detect hydrogen sulfide at lower levels. 
  • Updating online emissions data every five minutes. 
  • Using lower thresholds of emissions that would prompt public emergency notifications. 
  • Add more nonemergency notifications that are for “informational purposes.”

There will be two tiers of notifications under the state’s demands for Suncor: An emergency level, which will go out to all citizens with cellphones, though the public can choose to turn off those notifications; and an optional level, with much lower thresholds well below those with health impacts, where residents can opt in for the alerts. 

Suncor has until Nov. 1 to address the state’s demands for the additional monitoring provisions. 

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