Lucy Molina and Shaina Oliver were eating a late breakfast in Molina’s kitchen, trying to figure out how to operate the silvery, basketball-sized metal container sitting on the table next to them. It’s a special instrument designed to collect a local air sample to analyze it for the presence of chemical contaminants.
The pair was about to go out into the warm, February morning air and test the air monitor for the first time. Then Molina saw the alert message on her phone.
“Oh, another one,” Molina said. “I just got another one right while you were here. Ain’t you lucky.”
This is life in the shadow of the Suncor refinery, which Molina can see from her small lawn on Clermont Street in Commerce City, just north of Denver. These alerts from Suncor, about 10 so far this year, are designed to provide local residents like Molina and Oliver with instant notification about accidents, leaks and spills. They come when Molina is out running errands. They come when Oliver is at home with her kids. They come out of thin, usually foul-smelling, air and remind Suncor’s neighbors that they can’t trust what they’re breathing.
“Refinery personnel are responding to an incident,” this one reads. “While you may have heard an alarm or may see smoke, no immediate action is needed.”
Molina doesn’t find it particularly reassuring. “I get anxiety,” she said. “Like, those messages right now give me anxiety.”
Suncor followed up later with another alert describing the incident as a vapor leak that posed “no acute public health risk.” But Oliver and Molina want to be the judge of that.
Oliver is a member of the Navajo Nation and a state coordinator with the Colorado chapter of Moms Clean Air Force, a national environmental advocacy nonprofit working to prevent fossil fuel polluters from exposing people, particularly in disadvantaged communities, to harmful chemicals and carcinogens. Molina, who ran for Commerce City Council in 2019, is an organizer and advocate involved with many organizations, including 350 Colorado, Cultivando, MCAF and more.
Oliver and Molina are moms 24/7, but they have a second job, too: working to keep their neighbors informed and aware of what companies like Suncor are releasing into the environment. That’s the reason the pair met up at Molina’s home to get that chemical-sniffing metal basketball working — they, and others in their community, are taking matters into their own hands.
A new approach to old environmental news
Poor air quality isn’t news to much of Colorado. The state has had difficulty meeting federal ozone standards for nearly two decades. Additionally, more than 1,200 permits for new oil and gas drilling have been issued in the past year in Colorado, some close to Front Range neighborhoods along the Interstate 25 corridor, alarming residents and activists concerned about the health risks associated with airborne pollutants from oil and gas exploration.
But some communities are experiencing the issue on a whole other level.
Molina said she and her neighbors live in a “sacrifice zone,” a community caught among multiple sources of environmental risk: trucking emissions from nearby traffic, high levels of lead and PFAS “forever chemicals” in the water supply, numerous industrial activities close by and, in the middle it all, the Suncor oil refinery.
Commerce City, its southwest side adjacent to one of the most polluted ZIP codes in the country, is well known for its poor air quality and higher than normal instances of chronic illness. The city flows northeast along U.S. 85 and Interstate 76, wraps around Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge and goes on to touch the edge of Denver International Airport. It’s in Adams County, which is 69% Latino with 21% of residents living below the poverty level, where rates of asthma, diabetes hospitalization and low birth weights all are higher than the state average, according to the state health department.
Who bears the cost for that cheaper fuel statewide? It’s one community.
— Juan Madrid, advocate with GreenLatinos
Suncor, the only petroleum refinery in the state, made headlines when it shut down operations after a fire damaged equipment and injured two workers on Christmas Eve. The pause in production led gas prices to rise 51% on average in the Rocky Mountain Region, putting additional pressure on people already facing financial hardship. Then on March 3, the refinery announced plans to finish restarting its three production units by the end of the month.
Suncor’s relationship with north metro residents has been fraught for years. Neighbors and advocacy groups have voiced concerns about the refinery’s transparency and frequent accidents. Since the December fire, there have been three additional incidents and chemical leaks, each accompanied by notifications like the ones sent to Molina’s phone Feb. 17. The notifications were rolled out in 2021 with the intention of better informing the surrounding community, but advocates say Suncor’s communication is inadequate.
“With more than 500 employees based in the Denver region, we take our role as a good neighbor seriously,” a message on the Commerce City refinery website states. But Molina and Oliver said getting Suncor to respond to the community’s complaints has been an uphill battle for years, and the facility’s fast approaching reboot is not good news.
The air monitor in Molina’s kitchen is a part of a plan to change that. A coalition of grassroots activists has been busy conducting comprehensive air monitoring for the past year to document Suncor’s emissions and provide evidence the refinery has been making their families sick for decades. Cultivando, the community organization leading the program, is set to report its findings Wednesday morning — and maybe bring new urgency to an issue it has been addressing for years.
“It smells like business as usual.”
A few terms have been tossed around during Suncor’s stalled production this winter — “shutdown,” “partial shutdown,” “safe mode” — however, it’s not 100% clear to many in the community what the past two months have meant for the refinery and its operations. Advocates didn’t know at the outset if the shutdown would offer relief from the air pollution the refinery has emitted for years. Throughout the ongoing maintenance work, the facility has continued flaring and releasing fumes from its stacks into Commerce City and the nearby Denver neighborhoods of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. Molina said she doesn’t have to look to know nothing has changed.
“It smells like business as usual,” Molina said. “Because it smells like shit. It smells like a f-ing gas station here every weekend.”
Notices released by the refinery over the past two months mention “increased flaring, noise and traffic” and “venting of steam” related to repair work during inspections and operations. Suncor already conducts its own air quality monitoring with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. In a statement to The Sun, Suncor said the investigation into the Dec. 24 fire is ongoing, but its monitoring has not identified any “acute public health concerns” related to vapor and pollutant leaks.
“Specifically, concentrations for all compounds measured remained below acute health guideline values before, during and following the events leading up to Dec. 24,” the Suncor spokesperson said.
State air pollution officials say they’ve been following Suncor carefully during the shutdown, and that the company’s emissions actually trended downward. In a statement to The Sun, CDPHE said its Air Pollution Control Division had not identified any “ongoing or acute public health threats at this time” in communities around Suncor.
“Suncor is required to provide the division with additional reporting, if limits and/or reporting thresholds are exceeded,” the statement read. “We will continue to review and assess data to inform our response and provide necessary updates to the public. Suncor must also conduct their own investigation into the cause of the incidents and provide a report with that information to the division.”
“If CDPHE gives them a little fine, they don’t care. There’s really nothing that we can do that really impacts them.
— Harmony Cummings, Colorado Rising advocate
The refinery, after years of regulatory violations, paid a historic $9 million settlement in 2020, including $2.6 million set aside for local government and community projects. It was a momentous step forward in the community’s quest for accountability, but after three years, advocates say the issue is far from resolved.
Harmony Cummings, an environmental advocate and organizer based in Elyria-Swansea, the Denver neighborhood directly south of Suncor, said she worked for eight years as an accountant for oil and gas companies, so she knows the scale of the profits made by the industry. She said financial heft helps safeguard them from challenges by state regulators and environmental activists.
The Commerce City refinery processes about 98,000 barrels of oil per day to make gasoline, diesel, paving asphalt and jet fuel for Denver International Airport. It sells nearly 95% of its product in Colorado. Suncor has deep pockets and a lot of sway with the state government, Cummings said, and it knows exactly what it can get away with. It seems sometimes like these companies are immune to regulation, she said, and the system isn’t set up to hold them accountable.
“If CDPHE gives them a little fine, they don’t care,” Cummings said. “There’s really nothing that we can do that really impacts them.”
“That is why they’re dying. That’s why I’m gonna die.”
Juan Madrid, an activist with the national environmental advocacy group GreenLatinos, has worked for 33 years in public health and health care. He said current regulatory practices aren’t catching up to the growing understanding of what communities like Commerce City are facing with prolonged low-level exposure to these toxins.
When Suncor says it has determined that a vapor leak poses no risk to the public, Madrid said it is not taking into account the impact that a spike in emissions, however isolated, can have on a person’s health. And even if a chemical release is small enough to be considered safe, the cumulative impact of fumes emitted by the refinery, which often linger during the winter months instead of drifting away, is another important consideration, he said.
Much of the initial conversation around Suncor’s shutdown was dominated by discussion of how it would raise gas prices for Coloradans, Madrid said. Those most affected by the higher prices are lower income individuals, like many residents in Commerce City and other polluted areas, he said. But once the refinery reopens and prices return to normal, the same people will suffer increased exposure to pollutants. The problem lies with the status quo, he said.
“Who bears the cost for that cheaper fuel statewide?” Madrid said. “It’s one community.”
More research is being done on the cumulative effect of exposure to these kinds of toxins, Madrid said, but the prolonged, continuous health impacts they may cause can be very hard to track and link together.
Molina said these vapors are definitely much more than a bad smell. Pollution affects so much of life in Commerce City, she said, and not just for adults: Molina’s daughter gets migraines, her son has eczema, and they often suffer from headaches, stomachaches and nosebleeds. It affects her kids’ sleep, their performance at school — and her peace of mind.
“I think the worst,” Molina said. “I can’t focus anymore at work, when my son is telling me he’s got bloody noses. So you know what they did? They started hiding it from me. I had to look in the trash and find bloody toilet paper.”
Some days the stench is inescapable, Molina said. Whether she’s in her yard, her car or her house, the vapors follow her around, get in her head, making her frustrated and anxious. She said it’s like a ghost, how it lingers everywhere. In fact, it’s at times felt to Molina like her family’s misfortunes living in north Denver were of the supernatural sort. Her cousin’s heart gave out at 30, her aunt died from diabetes, and three other family members died of cancer, she said, including her grandmother in 2018 from leukemia.
I can’t focus anymore at work, when my son is telling me he’s got bloody noses. So you know what they did? They started hiding it from me. I had to look in the trash and find bloody toilet paper.
— Lucy Molina, local activist
She used to think it was bad karma, or maybe a curse, she said, but now she sees things differently. The realization that air pollutants from the refinery, including benzene, hydrogen cyanide and volatile organic compounds, could cause cancer, respiratory issues, and even diabetes (which her two young nieces already have) in her community was like a slap in the face.
“I was like, oh my God, that’s it,” Molina said. “That is why they’re dying. That’s why I’m gonna die.”
Oliver, who’s had asthma since she was young, worries that living in Commerce City has taken a toll on her health and the health of her family. She said her condition has worsened recently, and last year her son was diagnosed with asthma and has missed a lot of school. Oliver said it feels like her neighborhood, like many communities of color, has been failed by officials tasked with defending public health.
“You’re forced to think you’re OK, when you’re not OK,” Oliver said. “But you see your community members dying.”
Cummings said she’s disappointed to see how much slack the state gives to companies like Suncor — like when regulators delayed action on expired operational permits. And the current air quality standards, which the state is already struggling to meet, aren’t stringent enough to give people in North Denver communities the protection they need, Cummings said.
“We don’t feel like they’re here for our best interests,” she said. “And when I see these things play out, it’s hard to tell people in the neighborhood that they care.”
“People are begging for solutions.”
Cultivando, the nonprofit organization working to improve environmental conditions for Latino communities in Adams County, is using EPA grant money and drawing from Suncor’s $9 million settlement to fund its broad monitoring effort with the help of local residents like Molina and other partners and activists. The project, Air Quality Investigation and Research for Equity, or AIRE, will present its findings Wednesday morning at the University of Denver.
Cultivando Executive Director Olga Gonzalez said she hopes the data collected by AIRE will make the health impacts and risks of Suncor’s operations clearer. People in Commerce City and north metro communities can’t afford to pick up and leave, but they can’t stand seeing their families and neighbors getting sick anymore, either. The impact on human health is not worth cheaper gasoline for the state from Suncor, she said.
“We feel like we’re in a state of emergency,” Gonzalez said. “People are begging for solutions.”
Cultivando’s air monitoring is led by Detlev Helmig, founder of Boulder Atmosphere Innovation Research, whose work researching and monitoring oil and gas industry emissions on the Front Range has fueled activism since 2017. Boulder AIR’s instruments measure contaminants like benzene, hydrogen cyanide, volatile organic compounds, and more.
CDPHE data collected from fenceline monitors is reviewed and analyzed before being published, Helmig said, but all of Boulder AIR’s data is recorded and available to the public online in real time. A key feature of Boulder AIR’s work is providing a detailed look at chemical concentrations at specific moments. Exposure to momentary spikes in toxins such as benzene have distinct health impacts, he said, and when data is averaged over time those spikes are eliminated. Without this high resolution, real-time air quality insight, the public isn’t seeing the full picture, Helmig said.
The refinery’s fenceline monitoring is also not very effective, Helmig said. Tall smokestacks like the ones at Suncor are designed to distribute gases far away, and these chemicals may not register on nearby instruments on the ground for a while — or at all.
“Fenceline monitoring can provide you certain pieces of information, but it doesn’t capture what the pollution is doing that’s coming out of the stacks,” Helmig said. “Most, probably 99%, of the pollution goes over the fenceline. It comes down downwind.”
Boulder AIR’s instruments are strategically placed to capture those emissions. The air monitoring instruments include a fixed-site trailer, a mobile trailer, and 25 small, personal air monitors — like the one in Molina’s kitchen — distributed to community members across the study area. The fixed-site trailer provides a standard stream of data, and the other instruments across town provide Helmig with additional measurements and lend more context to the fixed-site readings.
Cultivando and its partners are counting on the release of the AIRE data, which document a year’s worth of monitoring, to spur regulatory action. Sometimes the state doesn’t take community-conducted research seriously, according to Madrid. But having its own documentation of chemical spikes gives the community leverage to advocate for itself when it feels like the reporting of refinery operators or regulators isn’t telling the whole story, he said.
“We don’t need them to come into our community saying everything is fine when I’ve got people coughing, and wheezing, and having nosebleeds and headaches. That is disrespectful. That is them not doing their job.”
— Olga Gonzalez, executive director, Cultivando
CPDHE said in a statement to The Sun that it is grateful to have had the opportunity to collaborate with Cultivando with some of its projects, and it acknowledges the importance of the struggles faced by residents in disadvantaged neighborhoods like the ones surrounding Suncor.
“We recognize communities around Suncor are disproportionately impacted by pollution, and we are committed to addressing environmental justice concerns in Commerce City-North Denver and across Colorado,” the statement read.
CDPHE also said it plans to explore how the findings of the upcoming report can inform its understanding of Suncor’s partial shutdown and restart process, as well as future strategies for addressing air quality issues in the area.
Gonzalez said her organization and community have not had positive experiences working with CDPHE. She said the agency tends to dismiss their stories of what it’s like to live around Suncor, framing the science with air quality standards that minimize local health impacts and brush aside their concerns.
“We don’t need them to come into our community saying everything is fine when I’ve got people coughing, and wheezing, and having nosebleeds and headaches,” Gonzalez said. “That is disrespectful. That is them not doing their job.”
It feels like Suncor is calling the shots sometimes, Gonzalez said, and no one is looking out for the community. Cultivando is well aware that this is a complicated issue that can’t be fixed overnight, but she said the community needs CDPHE to take them seriously and meet them halfway on this issue. Otherwise, nothing will change, Gonzalez said.
Molina said the community doesn’t have full trust in regulatory authorities, and that relationship needs to be built back. The community deserves a solution, she said. People of color in Commerce City have been treated unfairly, Molina said, and she’s not planning to just stand by.
“That’s what our government shows us,” she said. “They show us that we’re not worth it. I want to tell my kids — our kids — they’re worth it.”
“We really don’t have a choice.”
Conducting science in your own neighborhood does come with unexpected challenges. You may receive unexpected canine contributions, for example.
Molina and Oliver took the air monitor out into Molina’s front yard, where it has to sit in the open for 15 minutes to collect a sample. They sat it down on the snow, and Oreo, Molina’s dog, approached it curiously. Molina looked over reproachfully. “No,” she said. “He’ll piss on it.” Oreo got the memo and trotted away.
The device looks a bit like a tiny spaceship, but operating it was easy enough with the help of instructions. Molina jotted down some notes on a form, and once the monitor finished, the pair brought it back inside, mission accomplished. Inside, Molina’s home is filled with plants. Her son was at school, but her daughter was in her room resting. She had a bad headache and stomachache the previous night, Molina said, and still wasn’t feeling well.
Molina and Oliver both care a lot about their kids, and worry all the time about keeping them safe. Oliver said she and Molina will celebrate the victories that they can in this work, but sometimes it feels like the fight has no end. In reality, she said, the only final solution is a just transition away from fossil fuels.
“We as moms continue to advocate for stronger regulations,” Oliver said. “But it’s kind of hard because we know regulation means we’re still allowing them to exist. And we don’t want this to happen anymore.”
Molina said Cultivando’s work over the past year really feels like it’s breaking new ground, and improving transparency is crucial in addressing the problems faced in her community. This work has gone on for years, Molina said. Being a single mom is hard enough, and activism adds a whole other layer of work to her plate — but she and Oliver could never sit back and watch their health and the health of their families be disregarded.
“We really don’t have a choice,” Molina said. “And people choose to do nothing. That’s heartbreaking.”