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Suncor seeks increase in amount of pollutants it can release from Commerce City refinery

A proposed air permit for Suncor Energy’s Commerce City refinery would allow it to increase annual emissions of toxic pollutants by 90 tons, prompting environmentalists and area residents to urge Colorado’s health department to take the application back to the drawing board.

The new permit, if approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, would allow Suncor to increase the amount of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter generated at two of the three plants on the property in Adams County.

The permit would require a slight reduction in the amount of sulfur dioxide released by Suncor, according to a state Air Pollution Control Division presentation given Wednesday during a public hearing about the application.

But environmentalists and people who live and work near the massive Suncor complex said the company already produces too much pollution that degrades Denver’s air quality and sickens people, many of whom are low-income and Black, Latino and Native American.

“I think most everyone would agree that Suncor has a sordid history when it comes to pollution,” said Rhamesh Bhatt, chairman of the Colorado Sierra Club’s conservation committee, who said he was speaking on his own behalf during the hearing.

The problem with Suncor, Bhatt said, is it already routinely violates its existing thresholds for harmful emissions through mishaps at the Commerce City refinery.

“These violations are not rare,” he said. “In the case of some operations, there are pollution exceedances reported in every reporting period. Given this context, it is disappointing to see a draft permit that basically allows the facility to pollute even more.”

In May, the state’s Air Pollution Control Division, which falls under the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said it would seek public feedback on a federal air permit application for Suncor’s Plants 1 and 3. Plant 1 refines oil into gasoline while Plant 3 produces 90% of the asphalt used for road paving projects in Colorado.

The existing air permit for those plants expired four years ago, and the state failed to send the application for renewal to the EPA on time. That means Suncor continues operating Plants 1 and 3 on an old permit, which originally was granted in 2004 and revised in 2018.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, industries that create specified levels of air pollution must file for an air operating permit, and those permits must be renewed every five years. The companies file their applications with the states, which review and revise them and then send them to the EPA for approval.

Suncor, a Canada-based company, has another air permit to operate the Commerce City facility’s Plant 2, which also refines oil into gasoline and other fuels. That permit expired in 2009 and the state also failed to send it to the EPA on time.

In March, the EPA kicked that application back to the state for revision, so Suncor continues to operate on outdated air pollution permits for all three plants.

The state must respond to the public’s written and oral comments and it can revise the permit application based on the public’s concerns before submitting it to the EPA for approval.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Donald Austin, Suncor’s vice president for the Commerce City refinery, said the company was working to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas and other toxins it releases into the environment.

For example, the company recently installed automated shutdown systems in two gasoline-making areas to prevent future malfunctions like one in 2019 that caused clay-like gunk to rain down on Commerce City.

The company also completed a pipeline between the refinery and a Platteville crude oil terminal in 2020 that reduced by 150 the number of semitrailers driving onto the property each day, he said.

The Suncor refinery is gearing up to produce reformulated gasoline, which will be required for motorists along the Front Range once the EPA reclassifies the area as a severe violator of air quality standards — something the agency warned in April it was moving toward. The reformulated gas produces less greenhouse emissions in cars and trucks.

Overall, the company has invested $150 billion in the refinery to improve its performance, Austin said.

“We know our performance has not been where we or the public expect it to be,” he said. “We are on an improvement journey.”

Still, Suncor’s critics want it — and the state’s environmental department — to do better when it comes to regulating the refinery and decreasing the pollutants it sends into the air.

Multiple people asked that the state’s Air Pollution Control Division reduce the amount of pollutants Suncor can annually release. They also demanded that the division consider the EPA’s critique of the refinery’s other air permit application and implement those recommendations in this second permit before filing it with the federal agency.

Bill Obermann, air policy program manager for the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, said Suncor consistently violates its air emission levels. So even though the company talks about its work to reduce the pollutants that continuously are released from the refinery, it routinely reports incidents that cause a mass release that exceeds authorized thresholds, he said.

Obermann urged Suncor and the state to better control those incidents and to provide more information to the community when they happen.

And people spoke of the environmental racism and injustice that has led to Suncor being a consistent and constant polluter with few consequences. For too long, the health of the refinery’s neighbors has been ignored because they hold little power in the state.

“Please consider the history and impact of Suncor. We need to put the health of our people and environment ahead of corporations and profit,” said Aracely Navarro, who said she lives and works in the neighborhood


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