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The Suncor refinery in Commerce City is pictured on Sand Creek from along the Sand Creek Regional Greenway on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Discharges of toxic “forever chemical” PFAS into Sand Creek and the South Platte River by Suncor’s Commerce City refinery spiked to thousands of times the EPA’s revised drinking water guidelines for three months starting in November, according to filings with state regulators. 

The elevated discharges came as state clean water officials struggle to complete revisions to Suncor’s water outflow pollution permits that were first opened to public comments nearly 18 months ago. Colorado officials noted at the time they had included PFAS limits for the first time in a draft of the revised permit.

The potentially dangerous chemical discharge also apparently came without warning to the community, or to downstream water users such as the city of Thornton that draw South Platte water for their drinking supplies. Suncor, neighbors and state regulators do have monitoring and alert systems in place for air pollution releases from the refinery. 

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Suncor had major December fires that prompted air pollution notices and a long shutdown of refining operations, and environmental groups monitoring pollution there speculate the firefighting foam commonly used in industrial fires could have contributed to more PFAS runoff. The refinery recently announced $100 million in repairs to reduce its air emissions. 

Suncor did not respond to questions Wednesday. 

Thornton is seeking more answers from state regulators and is trying to hire a consultant to help identify the sources of PFAS and other contamination it finds in the South Platte. The water is cleaned up to state and federal standards before being piped to customers, but additional contamination makes the process more expensive. 

Clean water advocates also want to know more about the delays in renewing Suncor’s water discharge permits, after state regulators announced in November 2021 that they would be adding PFAS variants to the refinery’s monitored substances for the first time. 

“We’re told the state had some turnover in the permits division including the manager, so things are moving slow,” said Thornton spokesman Todd Barnes. Thornton has a sampling point at Sand Creek, which meets the South Platte River at the western boundary of Commerce City. Thornton wants its sampling under a state grant to move from quarterly to monthly, Barnes said.

“The state does notify us as a downstream user when Suncor doesn’t meet a permit regulation. Since PFAS is not regulated yet on their permit, we do not receive any notices about PFAS,” he said. 

Colorado regulators did not directly address Suncor’s most recent surge of PFAS releases. 

The Department of Public Health and Environment “is dedicated to creating a permit that holds Suncor accountable and requires Suncor to monitor and limit PFAS discharges. CDPHE is also set on requiring Suncor to follow a permit that is highly protective of public health and the environment,” said Nicole Rowan, director of the state Water Quality Control Division. 

Suncor Energy’s Commerce City plant is seen Feb. 17, 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

From past incidents, the statement said, “Monitoring data suggests that Suncor’s use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam on fire suppression activities is one of the primary causes of PFAS releases.”

The spike in Suncor forever chemical discharges was first noted by the environmental group Earthjustice, which tracks water and air pollution in Colorado and advocates for cuts to all emissions to protect public health. 

The state’s proposed draft permit revision for Suncor set PFAS discharge limits at the same 70 parts per trillion that had been the EPA drinking water guideline — not a mandate to water agencies, but health guidance — until earlier this year. In March, the EPA issued sharply lower water level mandates, setting them as low as 0.02 parts per trillion for the variant PFOS, and 0.004 for PFOA. There are thousands of varieties of PFAS, used for decades in everything from stain resistant carpet to food containers to waterproof clothing. 

The Earthjustice analysis of monthly Suncor filings with the state found November readings at 1,100 parts per trillion of PFOS in discharges, or 55,000 times the downward-revised EPA requirements. Discharges of 54 parts per trillion of PFOA that month were 13,500 times the new EPA limits on that chemical, Earthjustice said. 

The high discharges remained in January, though not as elevated. The February report showed lower levels. “Suncor is still unable to reliably control its discharges,” said Caitlin Miller, an attorney with Earthjustice who monitors the refinery’s reports and the state permitting process.

The state water quality division should be revising Suncor’s draft permit to the lower levels the EPA issued for PFAS this year, and should be demanding answers from Suncor about the recent spikes, Miller said. 

“The South Platte is a drinking water supply,” Miller said. “Science has come a long way on PFAS just in a short amount of time. And we know that PFAS are toxic at significantly lower levels.”

The water quality division said in its Wednesday statement that it “is considering the (EPA) health advisory update and draft drinking water maximum contaminant levels as we consider comments and finalize the permit.”

The Forever Problem: “Forever chemicals,” also known as PFAS, are an increasing toxic burden on Colorado and the United States, and The Colorado Sun is committed to coverage of public health threats posed by the ubiquitous consumer chemicals. We continue to follow threats from the chemicals to drinking water, croplands and wildlife, and the extensive costs required to clean them up.

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The EPA says the primary dangers of overexposure to PFAS include reproductive effects, such as decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women, developmental effects or delays in children, including low birth weight, increased risk of some cancers, and reduced immunity in fighting infections.

Dozens of municipal water agencies across Colorado are dealing with the expensive legacy of PFAS contamination, which so far has been detected most acutely in areas where firefighting foam runs off airports, military air bases and firefighting training centers. 

Cities are having to spend tens to hundreds of millions of dollars building new water treatment plants to get PFAS contamination below the infinitesimal amounts allowed in the latest EPA drinking water revisions. Some agencies say their current monitoring labs aren’t sensitive enough to even detect PFAS at the low levels the EPA is requiring. 

The Colorado legislature has passed laws phasing out use of PFAS chemicals in various consumer products, joining other states who aim to get the dangerous materials out of the manufacturing process. Attorneys general in Colorado and other states are also suing some of the biggest manufacturers of PFAS and consumer goods, including DuPont and 3M, for the cost of dealing with the long-term pollution. 

In addition to firefighting foam, tests have shown PFAS chemicals are shed by many of the consumer goods they protect, from cosmetics to toothbrushes to clothing, and then are sent into wastewater systems. 

National tests have shown nearly every American has detectable levels of PFAS in their bloodstream, whether consumed in drinking water or in shedding from plastic food containers. Colorado regulators also found potentially dangerous levels of PFAS in nearly all fish tested from popular public fishing spots. 

Thornton has told the state water division that any renewed Suncor permit should be reopened and tightened any time the EPA changes PFAS regulations. Thornton says Suncor opposed the reopener provision. 

“An exception should not be made for Suncor,” Thornton’s comments on the draft permit said. 

A reopener clause is “ripe for inclusion,” Thornton said, “as PFAS contamination in water and wastewater is an emerging and rapidly evolving issue across the state of Colorado and the United States, with potential for drastic public health implications.”

Michael Booth

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