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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 Environmental Protection Agency has once again fined Suncor’s Commerce City refinery over air pollution issues, this time demanding $161,000 for producing gasoline with too many pollutants, while also requiring Suncor buy $600,000 in clean lawn equipment for nine metro-Denver counties with excess ozone.

The settlement announced by the EPA says Suncor in 2021 produced 32 million gallons of gasoline with excess benzene, and in 2022 made 1 million gallons of summer gasoline with too-high Reid vapor pressure, which can lead to pollution from evaporation. The fine comes on the heels of the EPA in August fining Suncor more than $300,000 for alleged violations of toxic chemical regulations during a 2019 release from the Commerce City refinery. 

Suncor has also been under heavy pressure from Colorado regulators over air pollution and water quality violations, while air and water quality permits are under review at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 

The Regional Air Quality Council, a multicounty research and advisory body focused on the ozone problem, welcomed the $600,000 in clean electric lawn equipment as a boost to its recommendations for reducing ozone from dirty-burning small engines. The council has urged the statewide Air Quality Control Commission to ban the sale of gas-powered lawn equipment in the metro area in coming years. 

Small engines are a small but measurable portion of the nine-county ozone violation problem, and considered by air experts to be a relatively easy pollution source to attack. 

“This settlement demonstrates that EPA will hold refiners accountable when the fuel they produce fails to meet legal requirements,” said Assistant Administrator David M. Uhlmann of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, in a release announcing the fine. “This settlement and the supplemental environmental project that Suncor agreed to include will provide better air quality for residents affected by Suncor’s misconduct.”

Suncor said Wednesday it had “entered into a settlement agreement with the EPA regarding two fuels-related issues that Suncor self-reported.” 

The refiner said the EPA’s numbers deserve context. 

“No excess benzene was introduced into the environment as a result of these issues. The exceedance at the East Plant affected 5% of Commerce City’s gasoline production. Our West Plant, which comprises 95% of our gasoline, was well below the standard. Looking at all gasoline produced at the Commerce City Refinery in 2021, the East Plant and West Plant volumes combined were also below the standard,” Suncor spokesperson Leithan Slade said. 

Suncor said it has revised operations to prevent any more violations at the East Plant. Also, Slade said, the refinery will be ready to supply reformulated gasoline for the summer of 2024 that will “significantly reduce volatile organic compounds in Colorado, reducing the formation of ozone in the state.” 

A requirement to sell cleaner reformulated gas in an ozone nonattainment area is one sanction the EPA can make to push Front Range cities and counties back into compliance with national ozone limits. 

The Regional Air Quality Council said it has spent Suncor fine proceeds on clean air programs a total of 10 times now. A release from RAQC Wednesday was critical of Suncor for not pursuing cleaner energy options as other companies have, and noted the latest fines “represent less than one hour’s earnings to the corporation” based on Suncor’s $1.88 billion profits in the second quarter.

“No program can undo the damage from violations like Suncor’s, but initiatives like the RAQC’s Mow Down Pollution program directly reduce ozone precursors, greenhouse gas emissions, and other air pollutants in impacted areas,” said David Sabados, communications and programs director for the council . 

Ean Tafoya of Colorado GreenLatinos called it “poetic” that profits from an oil and refining company will go toward removing gasoline-powered machines from the market. Environmental groups that have been pushing regulators to watchdog Suncor would like some say over how fine money is spent, Tafoya added.

The refinery as part of the settlement will scrap the gasoline-powered lawn equipment that is replaced by the $600,000 in new electric purchases. The EPA said the equipment will be offered to Commerce City and north Denver neighbors of the refinery complex, as well as schools and other institutions in the ozone nonattainment area, which comprises Denver, Jefferson, Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas, Boulder, Broomfield, Weld and Larimer counties. 

“This supplemental environmental project will reduce these air pollution risks to local communities with environmental justice concerns in the Commerce City – north Denver area,” the EPA announcement said. “The results from EJScreen, EPA’s Environmental Justice screening and mapping tool, suggest a significant potential for environmental justice concerns in the area due to a combination of high pollution burden and population vulnerability.” 

Ozone and other pollutants related to fossil fuel burning can contribute to or worsen asthma and other respiratory and heart conditions. Residents of the neighborhoods surrounding Suncor suffer from those ailments at higher rates than in other areas of Colorado.

The EPA has also tangled with state air pollution regulators about Suncor’s history of and future plans to control various pollutants. 

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. 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...