• Original Reporting
  • Sources Cited
  • Subject Specialist
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
Subject Specialist This Newsmaker has been deemed by this Newsroom as having a specialized knowledge of the subject covered in this article.
Suncor Energy’s Commerce City plant is seen Feb. 17, 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The EPA’s Denver regional office is once again blocking a renewed state air pollution permit for the Suncor refinery in Commerce City, agreeing to objections from environmental groups that Colorado should crack down harder on carbon monoxide dangers and past plant modifications. 

Suncor has had numerous air and water pollution violations in recent years, and the regional Environmental Protection Agency had its own objections to Suncor permit renewals last year, ordering the state to make changes. After Colorado issued revisions, neighbors and environmental groups had the chance to make new objections. 

While Suncor’s Plant 2 will be allowed to continue producing petroleum products for Colorado and the region, state air pollution officials must now “resolve EPA’s objections” based on the environmental groups’ two petitions “before issuing a revised permit.” 

“Improving air quality for the underserved communities affected by harmful air emissions from the Suncor refinery is a shared priority for EPA and CDPHE,” said EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker. Becker is the former Democratic Speaker of the House for Colorado, and has placed an emphasis on carrying out environmental justice intitiatives while at the EPA. 

 “EPA will continue to work with Colorado to secure the refinery’s compliance with laws and regulations and protect the health of nearby residents,” Becker said.  

Representatives of the environmental groups welcomed the new scrutiny on Suncor, which has been releasing excessive levels of dangerous materials like benzene, PFAS “forever chemicals,” sulfur dioxide and more into the air and water of south Adams County and north Denver. They have demanded intensified state scrutiny of the refinery as it seeks permit renewals, and some have called for the outright closure of the sprawling plant, the only petroleum refinery in Colorado. 

“We’re grateful the EPA is taking the concerns of community and community-based organizations seriously, but fines aren’t working with these people,” said Ean Tafoya, director of the nonprofit Colorado GreenLatinos, one of the petitioners. “We’ve said for a very long time Suncor continues to be out of compliance, and enforcement isn’t enough, they just keep paying to play. It’s time for us to begin planning the closure of Suncor.” 

“We are happy that the EPA took an important step toward holding Suncor accountable for its toxic air pollution,” said Ian Coghill, senior attorney with Earthjustice. “For too long, impacted communities have suffered at the hands of the refinery and the state has failed to hold it accountable. This must result in the state taking a meaningful look at Suncor’s permitting and finally reining in its pollution.”

Coloradans managed while the entire refinery was shut down for repairs early in 2023 after a fire, Tafoya said. “The local economy survived. We’re grateful we have these tools and the EPA appears to be listening,” he said. 

The EPA’s demands in effect reset the clock on assessing Suncor’s expired permit, which has been under scrutiny for years. Depending on how much the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment rewrites the Plant 2 permit, the EPA said, “the revisions may involve additional public notice and comment.” The EPA would have 45 days to review how the state handled EPA objections, then the public would have another 60-day petition period to make new objections.

Suncor first sought to renew the Plant 2 permit in 2010. The state allows some industries to keep operating under expired permits, and says it enforces the requirements of the old permit in the meantime.

The EPA’s order directs Colorado officials to “evaluate whether additional operational requirements are needed to assure compliance with carbon monoxide and opacity limits at the plant’s fluid catalytic cracking unit. It also directs CDPHE to determine whether previous plant modifications were analyzed properly.” 

Tuesday afternoon, state air pollution officials said they were “closely reviewing” the EPA’s decision to grant parts of the petitions to the permit. “The division will decide how to proceed after its review of the EPA’s decision and documentation,” said a spokesperson for the Air Pollution Control Division.

The EPA’s 99-page summary of its partial agreements with the petitioners appears to lean toward new standards for Suncor, Tafoya said. Environmental groups want the state to require technology upgrades at Suncor that would prevent leaks, including demands to use the “best available technology.” 

Given months of news about benzene, sulfur dioxide and other hazardous material releases, Tafoya said, “GreenLatinos wants to have a meeting with the state about cumulative violations.” 

Under the U.S. Clean Air Act, the EPA sets regulations on air pollution limits, and state officials carry out the permitting, inspection and enforcement on the companies receiving permits. 

The EPA announcement Tuesday said “one petition was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association, Cultivando, Colorado Latino Forum, GreenLatinos, Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club. The second petition was filed by 350 Colorado.” The 350 Colorado petition was denied, the EPA said, but many of the objections in the petition filed by Earthjustice were validated. 

 “EPA is also supporting community-based air monitoring and state-led efforts to investigate and address noncompliance issues associated with air emissions from the Suncor plants,” the EPA office said. 

This story was updated Tuesday, Aug. 1, at 2:30 p.m. to reflect additional comments.

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.