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

A year’s worth of community-organized air monitoring suggests that current regulations are not tight enough to protect the health of people who live near Suncor’s Commerce City refinery, advocates with the nonprofit Cultivando said.

Cultivando’s monitoring program, Air Quality Investigation and Research for Equity, or AIRE, has been going on for about a year, funded by EPA grant money and a portion of Suncor’s $9 million 2020 settlement that was designated for community projects. The nonprofit, dedicated to improving environmental conditions for Adams County Latino communities, released AIRE’s results at a news conference Wednesday.

Olga Gonzalez, executive director of Cultivando, said the health impacts that disproportionately affect residents of Adams County, which is majority Latino, constitute environmental racism. The AIRE program started as a way for local advocates to collect more evidence of air quality issues and make a case to tighten regulations under Colorado Department of Public Health.

Gas prices spiked this winter when Suncor, the only petroleum refinery in the state, shut down after a December equipment failure. The refinery plans to fully reopen by the end of March, but for community members and families who say they have suffered headaches, nosebleeds and higher than average rates of illness, Gonzalez said, Suncor’s operations will continue to be a burden.

“Why should our community be sacrificed for the sake of cheaper gasoline?” she said. “Why do our children need to pay this price?” 

CDPHE collects its own measurements of Commerce City air quality, and Suncor monitors emissions at its property line.

In a statement emailed to The Sun, Suncor said that its instruments have not detected airborne pollutants above “acute and chronic” public health standards. Suncor said that it supports all air monitoring efforts, and values its relationship with Cultivando.

“We plan to continue listening to community and sharing information about community air quality; we are committed to doing this work in a data-driven and collaborative way,” the statement reads.

Detlev Helmig, whose firm Boulder Atmosphere Innovation Research conducted Cultivando’s air monitoring, presented the main findings of the program. Boulder AIR’s instruments identified temporary local spikes in levels of pollutants like benzene or harmful particulate matter, thanks to high-resolution, time-specific measurements, Helmig said. 

Often, ambient air pollution is measured over an extended period of time and averaged, which makes it impossible to identify these spikes, which can be short-lived but impactful on human health, Helmig said.

“Pollution levels go up and down, up and down very dynamically all the time,” he said. “If you happen to go out there at a certain time when levels are low, it may look not too concerning and pretty clean. But you come back just half an hour later and conditions might have changed very dramatically.”

Helmig compared measurements collected at monitoring sites in other Front Range communities, like Broomfield, with data from Boulder AIR monitors in Commerce City. Greater levels of benzene, hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter and other contaminants were present in Commerce City. Helmig said it’s not easy to definitively identify the origins of all of the pollutants present in Commerce City, which has several industrial sites and is surrounded by busy highways, but plume maps of chemical concentrations have helped them identify potential emission locations, including the area where Suncor’s facility is located. 

Andrew Klooster, Colorado field advocate with the national nonprofit Earthworks, presented more evidence of Suncor’s fume emissions. Klooster, a certified optical gas imaging thermographer, used a special camera to film emissions of volatile organic compounds like methane, ozone and benzene that are invisible to the human eye. He showed videos of VOCs coming from two Suncor stacks that were not being monitored for VOC emissions, he said.

Significant levels of propane, another VOC, were also detected by Boulder AIR’s instruments. Evidence of these VOCs in the area was presented to state and municipal authorities, Klooster said, but so far there has been little to no interest in understanding or curbing the sources of their emission. He said a constant challenge of conducting this independent research is being taken seriously by those with the power to regulate.

“When you are collecting evidence as a third party, as a community, regardless of how rigorous your methodology is, regardless of whether or not you’re doing the exact same thing the state is doing, that evidence is not given the full weight of evidence,” he said. “It’s not fully considered.”

The state will likely have to replicate AIRE’s findings itself in order to act on them or inform regulation. But the status quo needs to change, Klooster said, because current standards of compliance and permit enforcement do not really hold industry polluters like Suncor accountable for their emissions. 

Dr. David Brown, a public health toxicologist, said one fault in regulation is limits are set for levels of chemicals on their own — combinations of different toxins are not accounted for. CDPHE monitoring usually doesn’t indicate the presence of toxins in excess of public health standards. But while individual levels on their own may be low, he said, “synergistic toxic actions” between different contaminants can have significant health impacts.

“Two irritants don’t make it twice as irritating,” he said. “It could make it 10 times as irritating.”

Gonzalez said the AIRE results show that public health has been put at risk by local industry and failed by state regulators. CDPHE has not been a very helpful partner in the past, she said, but she hopes the department will work with Cultivando to effectively safeguard these affected communities in the future.

In a statement emailed to The Sun, CDPHE said that it has reviewed Cultivando’s data and “acknowledge it as part of a larger school of information” about air quality in Commerce City. Current approaches to regulation in the area are based on state and federal air quality guidelines, the health department said, and while recording short-term spikes can be important, customary standards rely more heavily on longitudinal assessments.

“To assess potential health impacts from any substance, we consider how much, how long, and how often people are exposed,” the statement reads. “When evaluating risk, federal guidelines are based on exposure over certain time periods, and you cannot reliably compare a snapshot to the established health-based standards.”

CDPHE said it is closely monitoring air quality in the area around Suncor, and it will continue to work alongside Cultivando towards the goal of reducing local emissions and improving air quality.

“The community around Suncor has legitimate concerns about pollution, and we share the goal of reducing emissions in the area. We plan to continue our conversations with Cultivando so we can work together to find solutions.”

Regardless of how the report is received, Gonzalez said Cultivando and its partners will continue working to inform community members about environmental health risks and fighting for accountability from Suncor.

“It’s not OK to tell us that this is just in our head, that this is not real, and that no change can come of this, because we will not accept that,” Gonzalez said. “We are going to continue to organize and inform people until we are heard and real change happens.”

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