DENVER (AP) — Colorado officials committed to cleaner air and reducing reliance on fossil fuels have reached a turning point on whether to tolerate the hulking oil refinery north of Denver that ranks among the state’s major polluters and regularly malfunctions.
They must approve or deny Suncor Energy’s applications to renew its operating permits, which serve as contracts governing the emission levels of toxic pollutants that can cause cancer and serious heart, lung and other health problems.
This is oversight power Colorado air pollution regulators have declined to use over nearly a decade of letting Suncor run the refinery under the equivalent of an expired driver’s license — a perk granted to companies if they submit timely renewal applications, The Denver Post reports.
Suncor’s outdated permits, which records show were issued in 2006 and 2012, allow emissions of 866,100 tons a year of heat-trapping gases and toxics including sulfur dioxide, benzene and hydrogen cyanide. During malfunctions, pollution exceeds what the permits allow.
Colorado air pollution control officials defended their approach, saying it doesn’t impinge on their ability to enforce provisions of the old permits, and blamed bureaucratic backlogs. They’re acting now, they say, because Colorado is cracking down on pollution.
Suncor’s refinery, built 89 years ago on a 230-acre site along Sand Creek in Commerce City, malfunctioned 108 times over the past five years, according to state records obtained by The Denver Post. That’s an average of about one breakdown every three weeks — often visible when putrid yellow grit wafts over Denver. The records show toxic pollution spiked above permit limits more than 500 times over the past two years.
Suncor also benefits from annual state tax credits, $2.3 million in 2019, for investing in an enterprise zone.
But now state officials, reviewing Suncor’s permit applications, say all options up to and including closure are on the table — though they’re mindful of the difficulties that permit denials and closure of the refinery could bring.
They face growing public demands for swift shut-down as residents of surrounding low-income neighborhoods raise health concerns.
“Tomorrow’s too late. We’re at their mercy,” said Lucy Molina, 46, a community organizer and small business consultant who grew up in the area and lives half a mile north of the plant. Molina said toxic fumes from the refinery may have caused the cancers, bloody noses, headaches and other ailments that for years have afflicted her family.
“If this isn’t environmental injustice, I don’t know what is. It’s like we’re not worth it, little brown communities and low-income families here, left behind after 70 years. It’s really unfair,” she said. “Every time we smell that pollution, I think: We just died a little. It’s like we are closer to death.”
Suncor officials have said the concentrations of toxic chemicals from the refinery measured in neighborhoods fall within Occupational Health and Safety Administration guidelines.
The refinery employs more than 400 workers. Suncor pays taxes to Adams County and Commerce City around, on average, $14 million a year. And Colorado leaders guiding a shift off fossil fuels, to reduce air pollution and help contain climate warming, have favored a gradual approach, recognizing current dependence on oil and gas.
Suncor refines oil mostly from the Rocky Mountain region, with about 10% to 15% “oil sands” scooped out of former boreal forests in Canada, supplying a third of the gasoline and nearly half the diesel burned in Colorado. The plant also supplies most of the asphalt laid down in the state and about 28% of the aviation fuel required at Denver International Airport.
The old permits were issued to expire after five years, one in 2011 governing pollution from a main oil processing unit and another in 2017 governing two other main units. Colorado officials said regulations require them to let companies keep operating under old permits if they file applications for renewal before their permits expire, which Suncor did in October 2010 and September 2016.
Federal and state laws, and Colorado Air Quality Control Commission rules, lay out technical requirements that, if met, more or less obligate officials to grant renewals. However, permits can be changed, with state approval.
Colorado law allows closure if a facility poses a clear, imminent health risk — the standard health officials said they’ll use in evaluating Suncor’s applications.
“We haven’t decided” whether to renew the permits, said John Putnam, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s environmental programs director. “We’re going to put it out on the street” for public review and comment.
But closing down the refinery would be difficult, Putnam said. Denver International Airport “could continue to operate,” though this would mean delivering more fuel using pipelines, railways and trucks, which could increase particulate and other air pollution around north metro Denver storage facilities, he said.
“There’s no free lunch from an environmental perspective,” Putnam said. “These are the sorts of things we have to balance. In addition, we rely on Suncor to remediate a number of past spills, even from before Suncor owned the refinery.”
A benzene plume contaminating groundwater under the refinery near Sand Creek and the South Platte River requires trapping toxic water against underground clay barriers and removing contaminants. Past use of firefighting foam containing PFAS “forever chemicals” has forced new efforts to clean groundwater. And other chemical contamination has surfaced over the years.
“If they are closed down, we’re going to have a bigger fight, and may end up in a situation where we’re going to have an insolvent entity,” Putnam said. “If we have to (close the refinery), we will. … A transition makes a lot more sense than just pulling the plug.”
Yet state health officials acknowledge the increased concerns raised by residents.
“We definitely hear them. And I understand their concern,” Putnam said. “That’s one of the reasons why we are trying to collect more data — so that we can make the science-based decisions we are required to make under the law. We are not ignoring those concerns. We are collecting the data so that we can understand: Is there a change needed? We do know there are air quality issues that are disproportionate in the Commerce City area.”
Colorado officials also plan to consider global climate warming. In particular, “we do have concerns about oil sands,” he said. Processing oil sands “is much more carbon-intensive than other forms of petroleum production. It is part of the big picture we all have to sort out.”
Suncor refinery manager Donald Austin’s schedule could not accommodate an interview, a company spokeswoman said.
Officials with the Canadian energy company told The Post they’ll invest $300 million before 2023 to achieve “turnarounds and other improvement projects… about making the refinery better, not bigger.” An independent third-party analysis of why the refinery regularly malfunctions, required by Colorado officials in March as part of Suncor’s latest negotiated settlement for violations, wasn’t available, but, officials said, will eventually be made public along with proposed remedies.
“Suncor plans to be a part of Colorado’s energy future while making sound investments and driving environmental improvements,” company spokeswoman Mita Adesanya said in a statement. “Suncor is committed to being a part of the transition to a low carbon future even as energy demand continues to grow. Our strategy is to improve efficiency and steadily reduce the carbon footprint of our business while investing in new lower carbon forms of energy, consumer products and services.”
Suncor officials declined to say whether their permit applications, which weren’t made public, seek higher limits for certain pollutants. Last year, Suncor requested an increase of its 12.8-ton limit for hydrogen cyanide to 19.9 tons. State regulators have not yet decided on that and this month declined to rule out an increase in hydrogen cyanide.
Suncor officials said their draft application “does not currently propose any changes to HCN (hydrogen cyanide).” That matter will be settled later, company officials said, “in coordination with CDPHE.”
Colorado officials will review Suncor’s permit applications this month and early next year and decide based on public health risks, said Garry Kaufman, director of the state health department’s Air Pollution Control Division.
“We will protect the health and well-being of the people we serve, and that means holding corporate polluters accountable for their violations of state law. … We will keep a close eye on Suncor’s actions and we expect accelerating progress to compliance. If they fall short, we will pursue all appropriate avenues for the protection of Coloradans,” Kaufman said.
“We don’t tolerate or accept violations of state or federal law or Suncor’s permitted emissions limits,” he said. “We have held Suncor accountable for their violations.”
A notice will be issued, CDPHE and Suncor officials said, opening a 30-day period for public comment.
Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post
The Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City is pictured on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.
Climate warming has hit the Rocky Mountain region harder in the eight years since Suncor’s last permit was issued. Burning fossil fuels accelerates the global warming that has led to cascading impacts — increased heat, decreased snow, water depletion, record wildfires ravaging forests.
Colorado officials under Gov. Jared Polis have declared they’ll shift the state off fossil fuels in favor of wind and solar energy and electric vehicles. Lawmakers last year ordered cuts in statewide emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gas pollution below 2005 levels by 26% before 2025, 50% by 2030, and 90% by 2050.
Environmental groups, including Earthjustice and WildEarth Guardians, have filed lawsuits targeting toxic pollution from Suncor’s refinery. Metro Denver air since 2008 has flunked federal health standards.
Suncor runs the refinery on an industrial site near the confluence of Sand Creek and the South Platte River where historical photos show a refinery was established in 1931. In 2003, Suncor bought the refinery from ConocoPhillips in a $150 million deal. Suncor officials have said they’ve spent $1.3 billion on modernization and upgrades.
Yet the refinery regularly malfunctions. Suncor this year reported 14 malfunctions and 111 pollution spikes above permit limits lasting from a few minutes to several days, adding to more than 396 pollution spikes in 2019 during 35 malfunctions. Following major breakdowns, such as those reported this year on March 17, May 17, June 19, Aug. 13 and Oct. 21, company officials issue statements of apology, including one that offered residents whose vehicles were covered in possibly toxic ash free car washes, and promise to do better.
State inspectors have conducted multiple investigations over the years, and imposed penalties for excessive sulfur dioxide and other toxic pollution while ordering Suncor to correct deficiencies.
In March, Colorado health officials announced the latest legal settlement, to resolve state complaints about failures between 2017 and 2019, calling this an opportunity to “reset” a pattern of pollution problems. This required Suncor to pay $1.4 million in penalties and $2.6 million to fund community environmental projects, and spend up to $5 million on fixing problems.
Over the six prior years, state officials launched at least seven cases against Suncor. In 2012, they fined Suncor $2.2 million for violations related to benzene air pollution above limits. In 2015, they ordered Suncor to fix problems discovered in 2013 and 2014.
Colorado air quality commissioners, directed by state lawmakers to cut pollution and meet targets, have been grappling with fossil fuel industrial pollution along with vehicle emissions as climate warming impacts including wildfires and aridity intensify.
“We have all, readily, used the energy. We have to get off of it,” Commissioner Elise Jones said, blaming lack of leadership and political will. “It is hard to stare down the most powerful industry in the world and say: ‘We need you to, not so slowly, go away.’ But we have to recognize that it is a global problem and we cannot export the problem somewhere else and think we are solving anything. We have a responsibility for all of the climate emissions that are enabled by our state.”
Neighborhoods near the refinery are home for low-income workers, many Spanish-speaking, hard-pressed to attend hearings, especially under virus restrictions, Green Latinos field representative Ean Tafoya said. But some are interested in opportunities to speak with decision-makers, he said.
“We definitely want to see a timetable for closure,” Tafoya said.
Local elected officials, while not calling for closure, increasingly have been scrutinizing the refinery and hearing from Suncor officials in company presentations.
Commerce City Mayor Benjamin Huseman said locals must have a say in setting limits for pollutants.
“My biggest concern with Suncor is that they continue to exceed the standards on the permits that have already been issued. My concern with any approval of new operating permits is: What steps are going to be taken to bring them in line with the standards that have already been set that they’re unable to meet?” Huseman said.
However, “any thought of using that land for anything other than what it is would be premature,” he added. “If it were to change uses, you would most likely end up with a Superfund (federal taxpayer-funded cleanup) site.”
Adams County Commissioner Steven O’Dorisio, who for years has pressed Suncor to communicate openly after refinery malfunctions that belch orange and yellow clouds over north metro Denver, said he’s bothered by state officials letting the company operate using outdated permits.
CDPHE’s permit process “needs to be open, transparent and inclusive. This is especially important for those families and workers most impacted by Suncor’s operations. I can understand the occasional permit extension while issues are worked out, but it appears to me that allowing businesses to operate under expired permits is the norm, rather than the exception,” O’Dorisio said.
“Our air, water and land needs to be free from contamination and pollution,” he said. “I am concerned about the lagging maintenance of the refinery infrastructure and facilities. How will Suncor adapt to the changing needs and standards in the future? If they cannot keep up now, how can we be sure they will keep up later?”