Long-awaited report on Suncor malfunctions does little to quell calls for refinery’s closure

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The problem-plagued Suncor Energy oil refinery’s push to renew its operating permits, and questions about state regulatory oversight, have intensified fears of residents, business owners and elected officials that toxic pollution north of Denver won’t end.

Suncor’s unveiling this week of a long-awaited report on causes of frequent malfunctions, with promises to improve automatic shutoffs, failed to reassure opponents calling for closure of the refinery.

Mistrust of the state government and the company, ingrained through years of seeing nighttime orange flares and inhaling hydrocarbon fumes, remains high. Officials at the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment tasked with deciding on the permits couldn’t cite a case where their agency directly rejected an application for a large industrial facility.

The refinery employs 500 workers who supply fossil fuels and asphalt for the Rocky Mountain region, processing up to 98,000 barrels of crude oil per day and up to 16,000 barrels of high-sulfur oil sand from Suncor’s operations in Canada.

It ranks among Colorado’s largest industrial polluters, emitting 866,000 tons a year of toxic and heat-trapping gases – air pollution that disproportionately affects surrounding low-income, mostly Spanish-speaking neighborhoods.

“I realize they’re a company that provides employment. But that shouldn’t supersede peoples’ health,” said Norma Frank, 74, who has run Colorado Lighting for 45 years near the refinery and whose immigrant family began farming in the area 110 years ago.

“I don’t think the refinery there is the ideal situation,” Frank said.  “It’s really close to downtown Denver… There’s a lot of people who are really concerned about this. I realize the ramifications. But this is valuable land.”

Frank and other leaders and residents may speak up at public hearings next month, on May 1 and 4, before state Air Pollution Control Division regulators decide whether to renew the first of two operating permits for this 89-year-old refinery.

The permits set limits — proposed by companies and reviewed by regulators and changeable upon request — that determine how much of multiple pollutants can be emitted into metro Denver air. These include toxic sulfur dioxide, benzene and hydrogen cyanide, the volatile organic compounds that form ground-level ozone, as well as particulates, carbon monoxide and heat-trapping gases that worsen global climate warming.

SunCor Refinery on May 14, 2019 ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

A bird flies by Suncor Energy’s oil refinery in Commerce City, just north of Denver, on May 14, 2019.

Suncor three years ago requested a change to allow more hydrogen cyanide, a potentially deadly by-product of processing crude oil at the nation’s 65 refineries. The existing refinery licenses, issued in 2006 and 2012, allow up to 12.8 tons a year, and Suncor has asked to emit up to 19.9 tons. State air pollution control officials “are still considering that request and will seek public input,” agency spokesman Andrew Bare told The Denver Post.

The refinery also pollutes above the limits. At least 108 malfunctions recorded by state regulators in recent years led to pungent, yellowish clay-like bursts containing gases, and state records show more than 2,000 “exceedances” between 2013 and 2019. State regulators repeatedly have issued Suncor notices of alleged violation and then negotiated legal settlements.

It was the latest settlement in March 2020 that required Suncor to hire a consultant to find root causes of the breakdowns. Suncor contracted with the firm Kearney, which works with companies worldwide, and the investigation concluded that the refinery design and the amount Suncor has invested are not to blame for the repeated problems. Instead, Kearney’s report blames a management culture that failed to take risks seriously and lack of adequate equipment such as automatic shut-offs for protecting people in neighborhoods.

Suncor officials this week said they’ll upgrade shutoffs by June in one unit and by 2023 in another. They’ll ensure greater transparency and accountability.

“We are committed to addressing Kearney’s recommendations as part of our journey to improve our operations and regain public trust,” a corporate spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. Suncor “plans to be a part of Colorado’s energy future while making sound investments and driving environmental improvements. The refinery will continue to meet the energy needs of Coloradoans as well as the state’s business and overall economy,” the statement said.

State health officials were mulling the report.

“Our initial reading of Kearney’s report is that it does not identify one single root cause, but instead identifies multiple root causes — meaningful deficiencies at the refinery leading to the exceedances during the 2017 to 2019 timeframe — specifically, deficiencies within the facility’s culture, training, processes and technology, including the pieces of critical equipment responsible for a significant portion of the emissions exceedances. These are important findings and they would arguably not have come out if the state hadn’t mandated an independent root cause investigation,” Bare said.

Denying Suncor’s renewal application could be a first step toward a shut-down and clean-up at Suncor’s site, located in Commerce City east of where Sand Creek flows into the South Platte River. Water pollution, regulated under a separate permit up for renewal, also has raised concerns as groundwater plumes under the refinery contain hydrocarbons including cancer-causing benzene.

Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post

Workers contracted by Suncor are using vacuum trucks and absorbent material to suck up water mixed with an unidentified liquid leaking into Sand Creek north of downtown Denver, CO, Wednesday November 30, 2011. “The material appears to be coming from Suncor property, migrating under the Metro Wastewater property and daylighting in Sand Creek,” said EPA emergency response manager Curtis Kimbel.

“What’s fair is for everyone to have access to clean air to breathe — that’s our guiding principle. We need to follow federal and state law and regulations. We’ve taken actions within our authority to improve compliance at the refinery,” Bare said.

Over the past decade, some air pollutants decreased, state records showed. But the refinery’s reported annual emissions of n-Hexane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds increased.

Canada-based Suncor bought the refinery in 2003 for $150 million from ConocoPhillips. Suncor officials say the company has spent $1.3 billion making improvements.

The officials declined to address whether those include installation of pollution control equipment specifically geared to processing thick, high-sulfur oil sands.

Adams County’s five commissioners raised this issue in a March 17 letter to state air pollution control officials. The commissioners also complained that a draft renewed permit for the refinery fails to address the increasing pollution and persistent excess pollution above limits.

“While I’m extremely disappointed in Suncor’s past performance, I have no choice but to remain cautiously hopeful that we might see improvements and conditions on their pending air and water permits so our neighborhoods can feel more safe,” Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said.

“I don’t think county support is a foregone conclusion,” O’Dorisio said. “But there are a few pressures and constraints we need to acknowledge. First, has a permit ever been denied? Can they be denied? And would a denial be a de facto call for a shutdown of the facility?”

The Rocky Mountain Recycling plant sits ...
Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post

The Suncor Energy oil refinery is about a mile away from the park where Hannah Molina, 14, center, and the kids in her neighborhood play in Commerce City on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020.

“And I am disappointed that they seem to think the investigation validated their actions,” he said. “If anything, it confirmed a that a lack of caring and mismanagement from the top are the real root causes of the problems. It is absolutely appalling that their answer is to recite talking points about what they are spending and doing. We don’t need more hollow promises of activity and apologies. We need the outcomes to change.”

Colorado law requires companies to submit plans adequate for complying with pollution limits. The rules grant exceptions when unforeseeable and uncontrolled events cause spikes.

North Denver residents complained that state health officials and their regulatory approach essentially let industrial polluters set their own limits and police themselves.

Suncor’s operating license renewal process “is an attempt to continue this self-regulation,” said Lucy Molina, 47, a Commerce City resident 1.5 miles from the refinery. “Self-regulation means they tell us what is right, what is wrong, what the limits are, what is good for our bodies.”

For years, Molina endured pollution — “worst late at night and early in the morning” that she could practically taste — without speaking up. Now she’s walking door to door trying to organize community participation at public hearings.

State regulators perpetuate “environmental racism,” she said, by accepting pollution levels Suncor proposes and incorporating these as limits and then tolerating repeated violations.

Recent whistleblower revelations by state air pollution division employees “made me feel hopeless,” Molina added. “Like, this is so corrupt. Who can we trust? My government’s walking hand-in-hand with Suncor. All these years, they’ve allowed this situation to escalate. We want this facility to close.”

State officials in 2019 insisted on pollution levels from flaring excess gases at night lower than what Suncor initially proposed, Bare said. And officials defended their overall approach.

Lucy Molina talks to the kids ...
Rachel Ellis, The Denver Post

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

Colorado’s air pollution control division “does not issue permits unless it determines that the terms and conditions are in compliance with applicable air quality requirements. When the division determines that the applicant won’t meet applicable requirements, the applicant typically makes changes to the proposed facility or accepts lower emissions limits,” Bare said. “There have also been cases where parties withdrew applications because they determined after talking with staff that they couldn’t comply with the appropriate laws and regulations.”

The whistleblower complaint alleged state air pollution control managers short-circuited modeling used to estimate pollution levels at industrial facilities. These were so-called minor sources that emit less than 100 tons a year of pollution — not the refinery.

While air pollution regulators can exercise discretion, state law constrains what they can do.

Lawmakers must pass tougher laws, said Jordan Reck, co-leader of United Neighborhoods of Adams County, representing residents outside Commerce City. “We’ve seen how entities take advantage of the limitations. We need legislation on clean air. We need monitoring that creates accountability.”

In northeast Denver, Shaina Oliver, an activist mother of four boys, focused on the future.

“As an indigenous mother,” Oliver said, “I’d like to see the state move away from this industry being in the middle of communities. They could move it someplace else where it wouldn’t be harmful to animals and water. Scientists are telling us we need to move away from these industries. We know we need to drastically decrease our use of fuel. It’s important that we start moving away from these industries and transition our communities.”