The Suncor refinery in Commerce City has been a menace to surrounding communities for years.

Its failings have been on full display during its recent shutdown, with emission violations, vague community alerts, and a continued lack of transparency. It is time for Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to step in and hold this company accountable before more people get hurt.  

In late 2022, Suncor reported that it would shut down for several months due to damage at the refinery from a cold snap that ran through much of the country. This shutdown has resulted in violations of Suncor’s pollution emission limits, including hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and smoke.

There were also two fires at the refinery in December, one of which sent two workers to the hospital and resulted in an increased release of cancer-causing benzene into nearby Sand Creek. Despite the shutdown, alarms were triggered in January for a gas leak at the refinery. Communities have been left wondering how all of this will impact their health.

While other refineries across the country initiated preventative shutdowns to avoid such catastrophic failure, Suncor was not prepared. The cold weather that damaged the refinery was predicted well in advance and Suncor should have been prepared to deal with it. This is yet another example of Suncor underestimating risk at the expense of the surrounding community.

Suncor has also provided very little information about damage to the facility, the cause of that damage, or the extent of pollution released as a result. The public did not learn of increased benzene pollution in Sand Creek until it was reported by Colorado Public Radio. This lack of transparency is a disturbing trend for Suncor as residents are often left in the dark about what health impacts they could be facing. 

The outdated, 70-year-old Suncor refinery has polluted the air and water of metro Denver’s communities for far too long. Disproportionately, this burden has fallen on the communities of color living in north Denver and Commerce City. And the state health department has continually failed to hold this industrial polluter accountable for the harm it causes. 

State regulators have an obligation to investigate the safety and maintenance practices at Suncor’s refinery following the shutdown. The department must take steps to inform the public about what risks remain and how communities have been impacted by emissions during the shutdown. Suncor has demonstrated a lack of concern for worker safety and the surrounding community for years, and its inability to be transparent regarding ongoing risks calls for urgent  regulatory action.  

The lack of meaningful action thus far has eroded the trust for many communities in the Polis administration’s ability to hold Suncor accountable for the benefit of public health. Suncor is unwilling to take appropriate steps on its own to get emissions and safety under control, so it is up to regulators to require it. Like most refineries, Suncor has one priority: to churn profit, even if it comes at the expense of those surrounding its facility – or its own workers.  

The health department has an opportunity to help correct years of injustices that have been placed on the north Denver and Commerce City communities by putting strong controls on Suncor’s air and water pollution.

The refinery’s new water discharge permit must place stringent limits on its discharges of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances —known as PFAS or “forever chemicals” — and its air permits must include robust emission controls, monitoring, and reporting measures to provide meaningful protection for communities living in Suncor’s shadow. 

Suncor should only be able to operate in Colorado if it can demonstrate that it can run a clean, safe facility that does not expose its workers and neighbors to harm. Thus far, it has failed to do so. It is now up to the Department of Public Health and Environment and the governor to hold the company accountable. 

Ian Coghill, of Littleton, is senior attorney for Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office in Denver.

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Ian Coghill, of Littleton, is senior attorney for Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office in Denver.