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Shaina Oliver (left), a member of the Moms Clean Air Force, and Lucy Molina, an organizer and environmental activist, set up an air particle and quality monitoring device provided by Boulder AIR on Feb. 17, 2023, in Commerce City. Oliver and Molina and their families have noticed adverse health effects in recent years, like respiratory problems, bloody noses, and stomachaches among other symptoms that they attribute to breathing polluted air while living in proximity of Suncor Energy’s Commerce City plant. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The Colorado regional office of the EPA vowed tougher enforcement action against Suncor in Commerce City, issuing a report showing the refinery releases air pollutants into nearby neighborhoods more often than many similar facilities around the U.S. 

Suncor logged more excess releases of sulfur dioxide-laden tail gas than any of 11 comparable refineries from 2016 to 2020, according to the Region 8 EPA study. Sulfur in tail gas is meant to be recovered to cycle back into the refining process to avoid potentially toxic emissions. 

Suncor’s Commerce City refinery also had the second-highest number of excess hydrogen sulfide releases, or acid gas, among the same group of refineries, according to the EPA analysis, which was conducted with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment using federal recovery act funds. 

In another tracked category, hydrocarbon flaring, Suncor was in the middle of incidents recorded from the 12 total refineries, the EPA said. 

The analysis by a third-party engineer said Suncor’s Commerce City facility may be producing more air quality incidents because of faulty electrical equipment, lack of preventative maintenance, and not testing or inspecting other control systems adequately. 

“We will use this information and other targeting tools to focus our efforts for future inspections and enforcement,” said Region 8 EPA Administrator KC Becker, a former Democratic Speaker of the House at the Colorado legislature. 

The state health department, which reached a large settlement with Suncor over past emissions incidents and failures, also said the new study would result in stepped-up enforcement for the facility under increasing pressure from neighbors and local elected officials. 

“We anticipate the findings will result in direct actions for Suncor to make improvements,” said Trisha Oeth, the CDPHE’s director of environmental health and protection. 

Suncor did not respond to messages seeking comment this week.

Clean air advocates said state and federal officials have plenty of information, and now must toughen their responses to Suncor’s ongoing air pollution incidents and applications for permit renewals. 

“We have known Suncor has been a bad actor for years,” said Ean Tafoya, Colorado director of GreenLatinos. “It’s time to plan the just transition, including the retirement and remediation of Suncor. Our leaders have had the data. Now they have more. Will they act?”

The EPA has said it will change policies and permitting to pursue environmental justice for the neighbors of frequent polluters. Commerce City and north Denver neighborhoods surrounding Suncor have lower income, larger minority populations and higher rates of asthma and other health problems related to pollution than other Denver communities. 

Suncor is the only petroleum refinery in Colorado, producing gasoline for cars and aviation fuel for Denver International Airport. The refinery released potentially dangerous sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide into the surrounding neighborhood in late April, the second incident that month, and state health officials warned the emissions could exceed permitted levels throughout that day. 

In March 2020, Suncor agreed to pay $9 million to settle air quality violations at Commerce City dating to 2017, including one in 2019 that blanketed adjacent neighborhoods in an ashy substance. It was the largest penalty Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment had ever levied from a single facility to resolve air pollution violations.

Water quality advocates also monitor leaks of PFAS “forever chemicals” and benzene into waters around Suncor. 

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 are struggling to complete revisions to Suncor’s water outflow pollution permits that were first opened to public comments more than 18 months ago. Colorado officials noted then that they had included PFAS limits for the first time in a draft of the revised permit. PFAS is an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of potentially harmful chemicals used as waterproofing in thousands of goods from stain resistant carpet to rain gear to firefighting foam. 

The state health department’s water quality divisions have acted quickly recently to address potential pollution in runoff from Suncor’s operations, Tafoya said. The air pollution division should use the study and other information to increase enforcement as well, he said. Various health divisions at the state should consider Suncor’s cumulative violations across all agencies. 

“At the end of the day, we need CDPHE to take the lead,” Tafoya said. 

Michael Booth is the Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of the Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He is co-author with Jennifer Brown of the Colorado Book Award-winning food safety investigation “Eating Dangerously.” Booth was part of teams that won two Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news. He also writes frequently about inexplicable obsessions that include tamarisk, black-footed ferrets and tire fires. Booth also serves as the underpaid driver for four children, and plans to eventually hike every inch of Colorado.