The Suncor refinery in Commerce City in June recorded PFAS “forever chemicals” in its discharge water into Sand Creek at more than 10,000 times the EPA health advisory level for the substance set last year, according to monthly reports to state health officials.
The massive spike in the toxic chemicals used in waterproofing and stain-resistant coatings coming off Suncor’s compound last month dwarfed the previous high readings in the Sand Creek discharge. Measurements of one particularly troubling form of PFAS, referred to as PFOS, hit 2,500 parts per trillion in June, compared with the EPA’s updated health advisory of 0.02 ppt for the chemical, according to Earthjustice, which monitors Suncor’s state filings.
One outflow measured at Suncor registered November readings at 1,100 ppt of PFOS in discharges, and then 218 parts ppt in May, Earthjustice noted.
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Earthjustice says the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which has been rewriting a draft renewed water discharge permit for Suncor since early 2022, needs to move forward on tougher enforcement of PFAS and benzene-control agreements with Suncor.
“Clearly, that treatment system isn’t preventing these large spikes in Suncor’s PFAS discharges, and Suncor still isn’t reliably controlling its discharges,” said Caitlin Miller, an Earthjustice attorney in Denver. “Once that PFAS makes its way from Suncor into Sand Creek and the South Platte River, it will just keep flowing downstream.”
There are municipal water agencies downstream of Suncor that must clean up South Platte River water to EPA and state standards; persistent high readings of contaminants can raise their treatment costs, Earthjustice and other groups have noted.
“Right now, communities are in the dark about what’s causing these massive discharges of pollution into our waterways and what, if anything, Suncor is doing about it,” Miller said.
State officials say they are not yet ready to discuss the rewrites of the permit draft first offered for public comment last year. They say they are incorporating the new EPA advisories as well as results from Suncor’s mandatory discharge reporting.
One required PFAS mitigation should happen later this year, said Trish Oeth, Colorado’s director of environmental health and protection. Suncor will be excavating soil known to be contaminated with PFAS in hope of eliminating that area as one source of contaminants that can enter runoff or soak into a groundwater plume running under the facility.
Suncor is under various state orders for “corrective action” across its large refinery site just north of Denver, Oeth said, and also has multiple testing requirements for benzene, PFAS and other materials.
“To date, Suncor has identified two source areas on their property that are releasing PFOA or PFOS, and we have ordered them to remediate those sites,” Oeth said. “These release PFOA and PFOS to the groundwater, acting as a continuing source of contamination to the environment.”
The testing has also shown that some of the PFAS contamination at Suncor, Oeth said, may be migrating onto the property from other sources at higher elevations. PFAS, which remain intact and toxic over time thus earning the “forever chemicals” nickname, have been used for thousands of industrial and consumer functions ranging from firefighting foam to stain-resistant carpet and waterproof clothing.
Suncor, Oeth said, also “voluntarily installed an active granular activated carbon treatment technology at the facility that is currently running to remove PFAS and other contaminants from groundwater.”
If the treatment system is working, Miller asked, what explains the soaring PFAS levels in water leaving the property?
Suncor officials have not returned multiple messages seeking comment about numerous incidents involving benzene and PFAS contamination.
After PFAS releases were noted earlier this year, a statement from Suncor said the company’s testing away from the refinery outflow did not show any higher-than-normal contamination downstream on Sand Creek or in the South Platte River nearby. Suncor’s statement said a sampling study by an independent firm in May 2022 said “Suncor’s PFAS contributions are not impacting the South Platte River in any meaningful way.”
Earthjustice disputes that, saying other testing has shown Suncor discharge is contributing significantly to PFAS levels found in Sand Creek and the South Platte.
“EPA is still working on developing additional PFAS regulations, but regardless, the state can and should ensure that communities are protected from pollution, like toxic PFAS from Suncor,” Miller said. The Water Quality Control Division “did a lot of great work on Suncor’s draft permit, but there is still more that needs to be done.”