Thursday, July 21, 2022

Incredible Chutzpah: Suncor Refinery Asks State Of Colorado For More Pollution Release


Colorado has a public image of a pristine mountain state with plenty of clean air, and spectacular views along its Front Range.  The reality is more subdued and foul air continues to cause health problems, especially for people with asthma and other respiratory problems.  Indeed, this year the EPA announced plans to downgrade Denver and the northern Front Range to “severe” violators of federal ozone standards, which would mean higher gas prices and more permitting regs for industries such as oil and gas, trucking and mining.

Meanwhile, we learned in last Friday's Denver Post that a proposed air permit for Suncor Energy’s Commerce City refinery would allow it to increase annual emissions of toxic pollutants by 90 tons. This has prompted 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.

Let's recall just before 11 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 25th, 2020 an opacity event triggered a vapor release alarm. Suncor officials used the term“opacity event” in a statement emailed to  Adam County local officials and posted on the company’s Facebook page.  The  South Adams County Fire Department meanwhile 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 refinery continued to malfunction, as reported in a Denver Post expose piece (Nov. 29. 2020  p. 8A).  Therein we learned that Suncor already for the 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.

The new 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 last Wednesday during a public hearing about the application.

But environmentalists and people who live and work near the massive Suncor complex aren't pleased.  They insist 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.   In the words of Rhamesh Bhatt, chairman of the Colorado Sierra Club’s conservation committee:

I think most everyone would agree that Suncor has a sordid history when it comes to pollution,”

Blatt said he problem with Suncor is that it already routinely violates its existing thresholds for harmful emissions through mishaps at the Commerce City refinery.  As he added, during the public hearing about the proposal:

“These violations are not rare. 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.”

Will this new proposal for reduced emission make any difference? Don't hold your breath, no pun intended. Neither the state health department nor Suncor answered questions from The Denver Post about how many tons of pollution the Commerce City refinery is allowed to emit under its existing permits.  This lack of forthcoming information, data means if it was produced the response would likely be a further public outcry and more outrage.

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

Whether that actually materializes remains to be seen.

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