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

The EPA fined Suncor in Commerce City more than $300,000 for alleged violations of toxic chemical regulations during a 2019 release, the federal agency announced Friday, a month after the agency vowed tougher enforcement action for releasing air pollutants into nearby neighborhoods. 

Suncor was ordered to spend at least $240,030 on emergency response equipment to improve the South Adams County Fire Department’s capabilities to clean up toxic chemicals, the EPA said. The Commerce City refinery will also be required to pay $60,000 in civil penalties. 

The fines address the refinery’s violations of toxic chemical release reporting and chemical accident prevention, which the EPA discovered during an inspection in September 2020. The inspection focused on the root causes of the Dec. 11, 2019, catalyst release. The release of the catalyst, which is part of the process of removing impurities from petroleum products, sent clay-like flakes and ash onto neighborhoods.

The EPA found that Suncor failed to complete required steps under the Clear Air Act, which aims to prevent accidental releases of chemicals that can have serious consequences for public health, safety and environment. 

Suncor also failed to timely report two toxic chemical releases to the community and failed to report sulfuric acid in their industrial batteries to local emergency responders, the EPA said. Suncor is required to report toxic chemical releases under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, which is designed to notify the community of toxic releases and help prepare for chemical accidents. 

Suncor did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon. The EPA said Suncor addressed the violations included in the agency’s inspection, but under the settlement, it was not required to admit any wrongdoing. 

“Facilities must properly handle hazardous substances to prevent dangerous chemical accidents and follow reporting requirements when releases occur,” said KC Becker, EPA regional administrator, in a statement. “If they don’t, the EPA will hold them accountable. We are pleased that Suncor is implementing critical safety measures to protect workers and the community.” 


The catalyst release in December 2019 outraged the neighboring communities and contributed to renewed interest on the part of activists and regulators in watchdogging Suncor’s releases of air and water pollution. The incident left ash in north Denver and southern Adams County neighborhoods, and Suncor did not improve its image when it offered free car washes in the wake of the release.

Court documents filed last week stated that Suncor was required to immediately, or within 15 minutes, report the release of the toxic chemicals to the National Response Center, but failed to do so. 

Last month, the Colorado regional office of the EPA vowed tougher enforcement action against Suncor, issuing a report showing the refinery releases air pollutants into nearby neighborhoods more often than many similar facilities around the country. 

As the only oil refinery in Colorado, Suncor uses and produces a wide array of toxic substances. It is also one of the largest single greenhouse gas contributors in Colorado. 

Suncor needs air and water quality permits from state regulators in order to keep operating. Both are currently up for renewal at different divisions of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The EPA reviews many state health department decisions through its powers in the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws. 

Most recently, the EPA objected a second time to the state’s proposed renewal of a key air pollution permit for some of Suncor’s facilities, which are split between two major air permits. In late July, the EPA agreed to objections from environmental groups that Colorado should crack down harder on carbon monoxide dangers and past plant modifications. The EPA had previously sent an earlier version of that draft permit back to the state for revisions in other areas. 

Colorado’s Water Quality Division is also reviewing Suncor’s request to renew permits for discharging tainted water into Sand Creek, which flows next to the sprawling plant and empties soon after into the South Platte River as it flows through southern Adams County. Environmental groups have noted frequent spikes in Suncor’s test results for PFAS “forever chemicals” at the refinery’s outflow into Sand Creek. 

State officials in the past have attributed that runoff to the firefighting chemicals Suncor has used on the site for years, including during a large December fire that shut down the whole plant for months. The state says it is still reviewing the long-overdue permit renewal, and may add new restrictions on how Suncor handles PFAS. 

Olivia Prentzel covers breaking news and a wide range of other important issues impacting Coloradans for The Colorado Sun, where she has been a staff writer since 2021. At The Sun, she has covered wildfires, criminal justice, the environment,...