As reported by Denver news stations on the evening of Dec. 11 last year there was trouble at the Suncor Energy oil refinery north of Denver. The Wednesday morning incident triggered a “vapor release alarm,” prompting operators to place one of their units into “safe mode” and announce they’ll launch a full investigation as soon as possible. Suncor officials called it “an opacity event” in a statement emailed to local officials and posted on the company’s Facebook page. They said the company’s tests showed air quality in surrounding neighborhoods “is within acceptable levels.”
Just before 11 a.m. Wednesday, South Adams County Fire Department got a call to investigate a strange odor at Adams City Middle School. People were also reporting they were seeing ash falling from the sky. The kids at the middle school were told to shelter in place and not come outside. Meanwhile, photos were being shared by residents all over Commerce City of cars covered by ash. Finally, late in the afternoon Suncor Energy admitted the ash was coming from their facility.
The catastrophic environmental event at the end of last year was hoped by many to be the last. But that was not to be. The refinery continued to malfunction, as reported in a Denver Post expose piece (Nov. 29., p. 8A). Therein we learned that Suncor this year "reported 34 malfunctions and 111 pollution spikes lasting from a few minutes to several days." All of these spikes violated permit limits and added to the more than 396 pollution spikes in 2019, during 35 malfunctions.
Meanwhile, major breakdowns also occurred this year: on March 17, May 17, June 19, August 13, and October 21. Following each major incident company officials "issued statements of apology including free car washes to residents whose vehicles were covered in possibly toxic ash."
In terms of litigation, Colorado health officials in March announced the latest settlement to resolve complaints concerning failures between 2017 and 2019. These 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. Most of these involved excessive sulfur dioxide emissions and toxic ash events.
Meanwhile, Colorado air quality commissioners have been directed by state lawmakers to cut pollution and meet clean air targets. They have grappled with fossil fuel industrial pollutions along with vehicle emissions. Two intolerable inputs as climate warming in our state engenders multiple impacts, including explosive wildfires and intense drought.
Commissioner Elise Jones nailed it when she told the Post (ibid.): "It is hard to stare down the most powerful industry in the world and say, 'We need you to 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."
This dovetails with the stance of Gov. Jared Polis' administration who have declared they will shift the state off fossil fuels in favor of wind and solar energy, and electric vehicles. Lawmakers last year "ordered 26 percent cuts in statewide emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gas pollution below 2005 levels before 2025. Also, by 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050."
That is a tall order to be sure and I'm skeptical it can be achieved as our state population keeps growing. It more comports with a dramatic reduction in the population by the same proportions - for each of those deadline years.
For now, the biggest concern of environmental groups as well as state health officials, is the "lagging maintenance of the refinery infrastructure and facilities." This lagging maintenance is probably responsible for 80- 90 % of all the pollution issues, but the cost for upkeep of standards is likely well below what Suncor is willing to spend. As Adams County commissioner Steven O'Dorisio put it (ibid.): "If they cannot keep up now, how can we be sure they will keep up later?"
Pending further lawsuits filed by Earthjustice and WildEarth Guardians - apart from the state's - may help Suncor to make up its mind. As one environmental activist among my FB friends put it: "They can go big or go home!"
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