A fenceline air monitoring state law passed in 2021 requires Colorado’s largest polluters to monitor levels of hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide, and benzene along the perimeter of their facilities. The Suncor oil and gas refinery is the first facility required to implement this program. Through this process, we are already witnessing their reluctance to prioritize public health unless forced to do so by community pressure.
Under the new law, Suncor had six months to develop a fenceline monitoring plan that met three main requirements: (1) continuous, real-time monitoring, (2) surrounding the entire facility, (3) with publicly shared data and a precautionary community alert system. When their plan met none of these requirements, community members stepped in and voiced their concerns in public comments earlier this year.
The plan didn’t properly encompass the entire facility because it left out Brighton Boulevard. It would also monitor each included section 50% of the time instead of continuously. Suncor planned to only report hourly averages, which dampens the data and can conceal short but concentrated spikes that still have adverse health effects. Additionally, their alert system would only notify residents in life-threatening events, rather than in precautionary situations as the law prescribes.
Fortunately, the state’s Air Pollution Control Division listened to the community’s concerns and stepped up to hold Suncor accountable in its review of the plan. In its review, the division demanded that Suncor add additional monitors to cover the entire perimeter continuously, as well as expand the community alert system. It also required Suncor to report 5-minute concentrations of the three listed air toxics and some added pollutants of concern. The refinery could have responded by acknowledging its shortcomings and taking “[their] role as a good neighbor seriously,” as they say they do on their website.
Instead, Suncor sued APCD.
Suncor claims in the lawsuit that it would have to build its original plan by January, only to tear it down and build an entirely new one later in the year. In reality, the state’s improvements use mostly the same monitoring equipment, so Suncor could instead just expand upon what it will initially implement in January.
Even if this weren’t the case, Suncor should not earn extra time in exchange for submitting an insufficient proposal. The extra time would be further months of unknown exposures for a vulnerable community. After years of operating with numerous violations, there is no more time to waste.
In the lawsuit, Suncor also expresses unwillingness to report concentrations of additional toxic pollutants, which was a specific request of the surrounding community. These pollutants can all be measured using the same equipment Suncor already plans to implement, which the Air Pollution Control Division agreed is a feasible way to better address local concerns at low additional cost.
It’s disappointing that Suncor would try to deny its neighbors data on toxic pollutants that its monitors can already measure, especially when Suncor claims to be listening to the concerns of community members. Suncor would rather expend their energy in the courts than in the community on this straightforward solution.
Suncor submitted a plan that did not meet the minimum legislative requirements and now is displeased that it was held accountable by the community and the Air Pollution Control Division. This reaction is somewhat to be expected, when it has operated in Commerce City for years with little accountability and numerous violations. Now with rising resistance from neighbors and more effort from the state to prioritize community voices, Suncor should get used to the added scrutiny.
By declining to implement an adequate fenceline monitoring system, Suncor has, again, shown the public it is willing to stall on environmental compliance. As Colorado continues to pass more environmental justice-driven laws, we must keep up public pressure on Suncor to ensure it cannot cut corners and fall short on our public health.
Caroline Frischmon lives in Boulder.
Lucy Molina lives in Commerce City.
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