Air quality monitoring at Suncor’s Commerce City refinery to increase

After years of spewing toxic pollutants, Suncor’s aging Commerce City oil refinery now will be the focus of three separate air quality monitoring programs, the latest mandated by a 2021 state law.

Suncor executives and Colorado Air Pollution Control Division officials are meeting with residents to discuss a new plan to install air monitors along the refinery’s nearly 3.4-mile perimeter to measure levels of benzene, hydrogen sulfide and hydrogen cyanide — chemicals that can cause cancer, breathing difficulties, headaches and other long-term illnesses, depending on the amount and length of a time a person is exposed to them.

On top of the state’s new fenceline monitoring, Suncor late last summer launched a self-monitoring program that includes 10 testing sites within a three-mile radius of the plant. And a community organization, Cultivando, is now running its own independent program to monitor the air quality around the 90-year-old refinery.

Suncor presents a “monumental challenge” to Colorado, Michael Ogletree, director of the state’s Air Pollution Control Division, said at the start of a public hearing Wednesday night.

The refinery just north of Denver is the largest single source of air pollution in the state, and its location in an urban area makes its pollution disproportionately affect a low-income, minority population, perpetuating years of environmental injustice, he said.

The company is failing to meet high environmental standards amid a corporate culture that accepts routine violations of air emission standards, Ogletree said.

“This needs to change, and Suncor can’t continue with business as usual or enacting half measures to improve performance,” he said. “What is needed is an aggressive and continual approach to improving performance built on sound science and a commitment to eliminating non-compliance and establishing additional measures to reduce emissions from the facility.

“And the state needs to use its power to ensure that this happens.”

For their part, Suncor’s executives pledged to comply with the new monitoring requirements and they say the company will use the latest and best technology available.

About 60 people attended the Wednesday night meeting to hear how Suncor proposes to install air monitors along its perimeter and to offer feedback on the plan. Many were skeptical that the company and the state can be trusted as the watchdogs.

A second online meeting will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday. The public may also submit written comments through April 5 by emailing [email protected]

Meanwhile, Suncor has been operating the refinery for years on an expired air pollution permit. Early last month, the Air Quality Control Division sent a proposed permit renewal to the Environmental Protection Agency for approval. The EPA will finish its review on March 26 and send the draft permit back to the state with any recommended revisions.

Already, the air permit renewal is being criticized by community activists because it won’t be more restrictive on Suncor and would allow the company to continue to violate the federal Clean Air Act.

The state, however, has said the proposed permit would crack down on some emissions while increasing the limits on others.

If approved by the EPA, the new permit would raise the refinery’s permissible limits of volatile organic compounds, which form ground-level ozone, by 138 tons per year and allow 11 tons more per year of particulate soot. The new permit would reduce the amount of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide that can be emitted by the facility.

Colorado also is working on a new water quality permit for Suncor that officials hope would place tighter restrictions on the refinery when it comes to water contamination. The state wants the new permit to require more transparency surrounding the refinery’s operations and impose more pollution monitoring systems as well as limits for toxic metals and chemicals.

The facility sits along Sand Creek in Adams County and the state wants to better protect the creek and the waterways it reaches as it flows downstream.

Even with the new monitoring and potentially more restrictive permits coming, neighbors remain leery about Suncor’s willingness to change and the government’s will to force the company into compliance.

“The city and county did nothing for the community while Suncor was running with expired permits for years,” Commerce City resident Lucy Molina said in an interview with The Denver Post.

And Suncor never bothered to monitor or report itself until community pressure picked up over the last few years, she said.

“Self-regulation does not work. Self-monitoring does not work. They’ve been doing that for a century,” Molina said. “As a community, as an impacted citizen, can I trust Suncor? Absolutely not. Can I trust the state? Absolutely (expletive) not.”

Fenceline monitoring

Last June, Gov. Jared Polis signed a law that requires Suncor and other industrial facilities in Colorado that reach a specific threshold for releasing toxins into the air to establish monitoring plans around their perimeters. Suncor was required to create its monitoring program ahead of three other companies that will be affected by the law.

Suncor will build sheltered stations along the refinery’s fenceline that will monitor benzene, hydrogen sulfide and hydrogen cyanide emissions.

Instruments inside those stations will project light beams along the fenceline that will hit mirrors and bounce lightwaves back to an analyzer, which will detect chemicals in the air based on light absorption, Suncor officials said during Wednesday’s presentation.

There will be 10 analyzers inside five shelters around the refinery’s nearly 3.4-mile perimeter, and results will be shared in near real-time on a website that will be in English and Spanish. The system must be operational by Jan. 1.

The company also must establish an emergency notification system so that people who live near the refinery can receive alerts when toxic emissions exceed permitted levels.

Self-monitoring

In August, Suncor stood up a self-monitoring program by installing nine air monitoring stations within three miles of the plant and creating a van decked out with the latest air sensors to roam neighborhoods near the plant.

The company hired Montrose Environmental to run the monitoring stations and report the emissions its instruments record. That information is updated online at ccnd-air.com.

The fixed monitoring stations are measuring carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen oxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter and total volatile organic compounds, while the van periodically measures ethane, ethene, propane, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and hydrogen cyanide.

During a February media briefing on the new program, Donald Austin, vice president of Suncor’s Commerce City refinery, said the data will help the company understand air quality conditions around the facility. It was important, he said, to hire an independent company to do the work.

“This has got to be science-based and we’ve got to have independent experts,” Austin said. “This brings credibility to the process.”

Suncor is committed to continually improving the air-monitoring program, he said, and the company will let the data guide the program and the company’s response.

Community monitoring

After years of violations on how much and what kinds of pollutants the company emits, the refinery’s neighbors are skeptical of Suncor’s self-monitoring program.

As part of a $9 million settlement for air pollution violations, Suncor gave money to a community group that also is monitoring air quality in neighborhoods around the plant.

Cultivando, a nonprofit Latino advocacy group, is monitoring Suncor’s air emissions through one fixed station and a trailer with monitoring equipment that can be moved around the community. The group puts the findings on its website — bouldair.com/commerce_city.htm — in real-time.

The group also places measuring devices in homes and schools.

The Cultivando trailer recently parked in Molina’s yard. She was thrilled to have it measuring Suncor’s emissions, which she blames for generations of health problems in her family.

“Seeing that in my yard, I was like, ‘OK, it’s real,’” Molina said. “Standing together and being united, we can bring environmental justice.”

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