Local Residents and Organizations Decry Air Pollution Control Division’s Renewal of the Suncor Oil Refinery Plant 2 Title V Permit

Denver, CO–Last week the Air Pollution Control Division (APCD) of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) renewed the Title V Permit for the Suncor oil refinery Plant 2 in Commerce City. The permit was renewed despite outcry from numerous local residents and organizations who testified and called on the CDPHE and the Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) to reject the pollution permit due to the refinery’s history of pollution violations, the detrimental impacts on the health of local residents, and the facility’s contribution to the climate crisis. 

“Our community deserves to live without fear of deadly chemicals in the air,” said Olga Gonzalez of Cultivando. “Commerce City has been designated  as a ‘healthy places’ site for years…we can do our part to support this goal by ensuring that the air that we breathe will not continue to negatively affect our health and wellbeing.”

The APCD’s proposed renewal operating permit was sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 8 staff for a 45 day review period on February 8, 2022, during which they can object to the issuance of the permit. At the end of that period, any revisions required by EPA will be incorporated. 

Local residents and groups are urging the EPA to recognise the environmental justice significance of this matter: aggrieved communities consider Suncor’s operating history a violation of their rights. They point to many years of clearly documented violations and public health exposures through illegal air and water pollution from this site. 

Community members are demanding that EPA determine that the State’s Draft Permit is in violation of the Clean Air Act and immediately require shut down of plant operations until the permit is revised to assure compliance and require decreasing emissions levels in the Title V permit. Community members also call for permit conditions that assure a full phase out within five years, with adequate closure and post closure remedies of a massively contaminated site, rather than allow increases in pollution limits that CDPHE approved in Suncor’s new permit. 

Photo: Environmental Justice Atlas

Community members say that APCD’s latest draft permit overlooks Suncor’s failure to minimally comply with existing laws and regulation, perpetuating an ongoing behavior of negligence and a trend toward an outcome of site abandonment, due to failure to financially assure adequate cleanup of the site for future economically and environmentally acceptable reuse. They worry that the likely outcome is creation of another major Superfund disaster for this community. 

Additionally, local residents and groups are urging state officials to support a just transition for Suncor workers and assistance for impacted community members. They say that the millions Suncor must pay in fines for their pollution violations should go back to impacted community members, not to Suncor to fix their problems.

Finally, the residents and groups say Suncor must be held accountable to pollution standards and violations. They call for community-based professional monitoring of Suncor’s pollution, online data and warning systems that the community can access in Spanish and English, and enforcement of severe penalties for pollution violations, which must be immediately addressed.

“Suncor is the big problem in the community,” said Lucy Molina, a Commerce City resident. “It is time that we wake up to the environmental racism happening in our community, and especially in brown, black and low income communities statewide.”

The Suncor refinery is a massive source of toxic pollution: in 2020 its toxic releases were in the top ten percent nationally among petroleum facilities. The EPA reports it has been in ‘significant violation’ of the Clean Air Act and noncompliance with federal law on disposal of toxics (RCRA) every single quarter of the last three years, and also in ‘significant violation’ of the Clean Water Act more often than not. Suncor also disproportionately impacts low income households and communities of color primarily in the 80216 zip code, which is frequently reported as the most polluted zip code in the United States.

The Suncor oil refinery releases nearly one million metric tons of carbon pollution annually, as much as 216,000 passenger vehicles. With House Bills 21-1266 and 19-1261 requiring the state to address environmental justice and prioritize reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution in disproportionately impacted communities, the groups argue that ultimately shuttering the refinery is compelled by law. 

“We know that to realistically achieve Colorado’s air quality and environmental justice goals and greenhouse gas reduction targets under HB19-1261, fossil fuels must be rapidly phased out over the next decade,” said Micah Parkin, Executive Director of 350 Colorado. “Suncor is a toxic relic of the fossil fuel era that is poisoning Colorado families and exacerbating our F-grade air quality and the climate crisis, so it’s time for the denial of Suncor’s permit to pollute.” 

The refinery also releases large amounts of haze and smog forming emissions, as well as numerous toxic substances including hydrogen cyanide, benzene, mercury, propylene, hydrochloric acid, lead, and ethylene glycol.

“A short list of health impacts of exposure to these chemicals includes increased airway resistance and irritation, increased respiratory illness, worsening asthma symptoms, prolonged or permanent visual defects, and damage to the esophagus and stomach – and, of course children are the ones most impacted,” said Evelyn Hutt, MD, a retired AssociateProfessor of Medicine at the University of Colorado and PSR (Physicians for Social Responsibility) Colorado representative. “Generations of children have grown up in neighborhoods near Suncor with daily exposure to these toxic substances. It is time to stop permitting.”

The economic benefits of closing the Suncor refinery stand to be enormous. A study by the Colorado Fiscal Institute found that Adams County, which is where the refinery is located, would reap upwards of $12.7 million annually due to reduced levels of adverse health impacts. Overall, Colorado stands to gain upward of $35.4 million annually. Coupled with other co-benefits related to the reduction of harmful emissions, including reduced smog and haze forming pollution, the groups found that the costs of closing the refinery would be far less than the cost of pollution controls and ongoing operation.

Suncor’s air pollution is worsened by the fact that the company chronically violates its air quality permit and clean air laws and regulations. Even after agreeing last year to pay millions to resolve years of non-compliance, the company continues to violate.

For more information, visit https://350colorado.org/suncor/