The Suncor refinery north of Denver faces a authorities evaluation of out of date permits and plans $ 300 million to "higher not get greater" – The Denver Submit


Colorado officials advocating cleaner air and less reliance on fossil fuels have reached a tipping point where there is a need to tolerate the huge oil refinery north of Denver, one of the state's biggest polluters and a regular source of disruption .

They must approve or deny Suncor Energy's applications for renewals of their operating licenses, which serve as contracts for the emission levels of toxic pollutants that can cause cancer and serious heart, lung and other health problems.

This is the regulatory body that Colorado Air Pollution Agencies have refused to allow Suncor to operate the refinery under the equivalent of an expired driver's license for nearly a decade – a benefit granted to companies when they submit requests for timely renewal.

Suncor's outdated permits, which are recorded to have been issued in 2006 and 2012, allow 866,100 tons of heat-scavenging gases and toxins such as sulfur dioxide, benzene and hydrogen cyanide to be emitted annually. In the event of a malfunction, the contamination exceeds the permissible values.

Air pollution officials in Colorado defended their approach, saying it did not affect their ability to enforce provisions of the old permits and accused of bureaucratic backlog. They're acting now, they say, because Colorado's crackdown on pollution.

Seth McConnell, Denver Post File

A flame shoots from the top of the pile as excess gases are burned at the Suncor Oil Refinery in Commerce City on October 14, 2016. A power outage at the refinery resulted in a thick cloud of yellow smoke being released earlier this week.

Suncor's refinery, built 89 years ago on 230 acres on Sand Creek in Commerce City, failed 108 times in the past five years. This is based on state records from the Denver Post. That averages about one breakdown every three weeks – often seen when rotten yellow grain blows over Denver. The records show that the toxic pollution has exceeded permit limits more than 500 times in the past two years.

Suncor also benefits from annual tax credits of $ 2.3 million in 2019 for investments in a corporate zone.

Now state officials examining Suncor's permit applications say all options up to and including the closure are on the table – although they are aware of the difficulties denying the permit and closing the refinery could bring.

They face growing public calls for a swift shutdown as residents of the surrounding low-income neighborhoods raise health concerns.

"Tomorrow is too late. We are at her 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 emanate from the plant Refinery may have caused cancer, bloody noses, headaches, and other illnesses that have affected their family for years.

"If this isn't an environmental injustice, I don't know what it 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 this pollution, I think, we've only died a little. It's like we're closer to death."

According to Suncor representatives, the concentrations of toxic chemicals from the refinery measured in the vicinity fall under the guidelines of the health and safety authority.

The refinery employs more than 400 people. Suncor pays Adams County and Commerce City taxes averaging $ 14 million per year. And Colorado leaders, who advocate shifting fossil fuels to reduce air pollution and help curb global warming, advocate a phased approach that recognizes our current reliance on oil and gas.

Suncor refines oil primarily from the Rocky Mountain region, with approximately 10 to 15% of the tar sands coming from former boreal forests in Canada and providing a third of the gasoline burned in Colorado and nearly half of the diesel burned in Colorado. The facility also supplies most of the state-designated asphalt and approximately 28% of the aviation fuel used at Denver International Airport.

Rachel Ellis, the Denver Post

The Suncor Oil Refinery is about 1 mile from the park where Hannah Molina, 14 and the kids in her neighborhood will be playing in Commerce City on Thursday, November 19, 2020.

"No free lunch"

The old permits were issued after five years, one in 2011 for pollution from a main oil processing unit and one in 2017 for two other main units. According to Colorado official sources, companies under old regulations must continue to operate with old permits if they submit renewal requests before their permits expire, which Suncor did in October 2010 and September 2016.

State and state laws and the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission regulations set technical requirements that, when met, will more or less require officers to grant extensions. However, permits can be changed with government approval.

Colorado law allows closure if a facility presents a clear, imminent health hazard. The standard health officials said they will use these in evaluating Suncor's applications.

"We haven't made a decision yet," said John Putnam, director of environmental programs for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "We'll get it on the street" for public review and comment.

But closing the refinery would be difficult, Putnam said. Denver International Airport "could keep operating," though that would mean delivering more fuel via pipelines, railways and trucks, which could increase particulate and other air pollution in North Metro Denver warehouses, he said.

SunCor refinery on May 14, 2019 ...

RJ Sangosti, the Denver Post

On May 14, 2019, a bird flies past Suncor Energy's oil refinery in Commerce City, north of Denver.

"From an environmental perspective, there is no such thing as free lunch," Putnam said. “These are the things that we need to balance. In addition, we rely on Suncor to help fix a number of past spills even before Suncor owned the refinery. "

A plume of benzene contaminating the groundwater under the refinery near Sand Creek and the South Platte River requires the collection of toxic water against underground clay barriers and the removal of contaminants. The use of fire fighting foam, which contains PFAS chemicals forever, has forced new efforts to purify groundwater in the past. And other chemical contaminants have surfaced over the years.

"If they close, we will have a bigger fight and possibly end up in a situation where we will have a bankrupt unit," Putnam said. “If we have to shut down the refinery, we will. … A transition makes much more sense than just pulling the plug. "

However, state health officials recognize the growing concerns of local residents.

“We definitely hear them. And I understand your concern, ”Putnam said. "This is one of the reasons we're trying to collect more data so we can make the science-based decisions we must make under the law." We do not ignore these concerns. We collect the data so we can understand: is a change needed? We know there are air quality issues that are disproportionate in the Commerce City area. "

Colorado officials also plan to consider global warming. In particular, "we have concerns about oil sands," he said. The processing of oil sands is much more carbon intensive than other forms of oil production. It's part of the bigger picture that we all need to sort out. "

The Molina family from left, Hannah, ...

Rachel Ellis, the Denver Post

The Molina family from left: Omar (15), Hannah (14) and mother Lucy pose together for a portrait outside their home in Commerce City on Monday, November 23, 2020. You live about a mile from the Suncor Oil Refinery.

Invest in improvements

Suncor refinery manager Donald Austin's schedule failed to include an interview, a company spokeswoman said.

Officials for the Canadian energy company told The Post that before 2023 they will invest $ 300 million to "achieve turnarounds and other improvement projects … to make the refinery better, not bigger". An independent third-party analysis of why the refinery regularly fails, requested by Colorado officials in March as part of Suncor's latest negotiated settlement for violations, was not available but will eventually be released along with proposed remedial action, according to officials.

"Suncor plans to be part of Colorado's energy future while making solid investments and driving environmental improvements," company spokeswoman Mita Adesanya said in a statement. “Suncor is committed to being part of the transition to a low carbon future, even as energy demands continue to grow. Our strategy is to improve efficiency and steadily reduce the carbon footprint of our business, while investing in new low-carbon forms of energy, consumer goods and services. "

Suncor officials declined to say whether their permit applications, which have not been made public, seek higher limits for certain pollutants. Last year, Suncor called for the 12.8 tonne limit on hydrogen cyanide to be increased to 19.9 tons. State regulators have not yet made a decision, and this month declined to rule out a surge in hydrogen cyanide.

Suncor officials said their draft motion "does not currently suggest any changes to HCN (hydrogen cyanide)." That matter will be resolved later, company officials said, "in coordination with CDPHE."

Colorado officials will review Suncor's permit applications this month and early next year and make decisions based on public health risks, said Garry Kaufman, director of air pollution control for the state Department of Health.

“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 be closely monitoring Suncor's actions and expect progress towards compliance to be accelerated. If they are not enough, we will take all appropriate avenues to protect the Coloradans, ”said Kaufman.

"We do not tolerate or accept violations of any state or federal law or Suncor's emission limits," he said. "We have held Suncor accountable for their violations."

According to CDPHE and Suncor representatives, a notice will be released giving 30 days for public comments.

Rachel Ellis, the Denver Post

The Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City is pictured on Saturday, November 21, 2020.

Regular disruptions

Global warming has hit the Rocky Mountain region harder in the eight years since Suncor's last permit. Burning fossil fuels accelerates global warming, which has resulted in cascading effects – increased heat, decreased snow, water shortage, record of forest fires devastating forests.

Colorado officials under Governor Jared Polis have said they will turn the state away from fossil fuels in favor of wind, solar, and electric vehicles. Legislators last year ordered a reduction in nationwide emissions of greenhouse gas emissions that capture heat to below 2005 levels by 26% before 2025, by 50% by 2030 and by 90% by 2050.

Environmental groups, including Earthjustice and WildEarth Guardians, have filed lawsuits against toxic pollution from the Suncor refinery. Metro Denver Air has missed federal health standards since 2008.

Suncor operates the refinery on an industrial site near the confluence of Sand Creek and South Platte Rivers, where historical photos show that a refinery was established in 1931. In 2003, Suncor purchased the ConocoPhillips refinery for $ 150 million. Suncor employees have reported spending $ 1.3 billion on modernizations and upgrades.

However, the refinery regularly fails. This year Suncor reported 14 malfunctions and 111 pollution peaks above the permissible limit values ​​from a few minutes to several days, which in 2019 led to more than 396 pollution peaks with 35 malfunctions. Following major mishaps, as reported this year on March 17, May 17, June 19, August 13 and October 21, company officials are issuing letters of apology, including one offering residents their vehicles with a possibly toxic ash-free car washes were covered and promises to do better.

State inspectors have conducted multiple investigations over the years and imposed penalties for excessive sulfur dioxide and other toxic spills while instructing Suncor to correct deficiencies.

In March, Colorado health officials announced the latest legal deal to resolve state complaints about outages between 2017 and 2019, calling this an opportunity to reset a pattern of pollution problems. For this, Suncor had to pay fines of $ 1.4 million, $ 2.6 million to fund environmental projects in the community and up to $ 5 million to fix problems.

In the past six years, state officials have initiated 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 commissioned Suncor to fix the problems discovered in 2013 and 2014.

Colorado Air Quality Officers, mandated by lawmakers to reduce pollution and meet the goals, have been grappling with industrial pollution from fossil fuels and vehicle emissions as the effects of global warming, including forest fires and drought, increase.

“We all used the energy willingly. We have to get away from it, ”said Commissioner Elise Jones, blaming the lack of leadership and political will. “It's hard to stare at the world's most powerful industry and say, 'We need you to stop walking away. & # 39; But we have to realize that it is a global problem and we cannot export the problem elsewhere and think we will solve everything. We are responsible for all climate emissions that our state causes. "

Left: Hannah Molina, 14, looks ...Left: Hannah Molina, 14, looks at her cell phone in her room on Thursday, November 19, 2020. Her windows are covered with blankets to keep sunlight from entering her room due to the frequent migraines. Right: Hannah, 14, left, prays with her mother Lucy Molina, right, during a service at their Commerce City home on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. (Photos by Rachel Ellis / The Denver Post)

"Open, transparent and inclusive"

The neighborhoods near the refinery have low-income workers, many of whom are Spanish-speaking and difficult to attend hearings, particularly under virus restrictions, said Green Latinos sales representative Ean Tafoya. However, some are interested in ways to speak to decision makers, he said.

"We definitely want a schedule for the closure," said Tafoya.

Local elected officials, while not demanding a shutdown, increasingly investigated the refinery and heard from Suncor officials in company presentations.

Commerce City Mayor Benjamin Huseman said local residents should have a say in setting limits for pollutants.

“My biggest concern with Suncor is that they will continue to exceed the standards for the permits that have already been issued. My concern when approving new operating permits is: What steps are being taken to bring them into line with the standards already set that they cannot meet? "Said Huseman.

"However, any thought of using this land for anything other than what it is would be premature," he added. "If usage changed, there would most likely be a superfund site (federal government-funded cleanup)."

Adams County's commissioner Steven O'Dorisio, who has been pushing Suncor for years to communicate openly after disruptions at the refinery belching orange and yellow clouds over northern Denver Metro, said he was disturbed by state officials who let the company operate with outdated permits.

The CDPHE approval process must be open, transparent and inclusive. This is especially important for families and workers who are hardest hit by Suncor's activities. I can understand the occasional renewal of permits as issues are resolved, but it seems to me that allowing companies to work with expired permits is the norm rather than the exception, "O’Dorisio said.

"Our air, our water and our land must be free of pollution and pollution," he said. “I am concerned about the delayed maintenance of the refinery infrastructure and facilities. How will Suncor adapt to changing needs and standards in the future? If they can't keep up now, how can we be sure that they will keep up later? "

Lucy Molina talks to the children ...

Rachel Ellis, the Denver Post

Lucy Molina talks to the kids who are playing on her neighborhood street from her front yard in Commerce City on Thursday, November 19, 2020. Their two children, Hannah, 14, and Omar, 15, usually spend their free time wandering the neighborhood with their friends, who are like family to them.



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