COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (CBS4)– Hundreds of pounds of toxic gases were released into the air at the Suncor Energy oil refinery for the second time in five months, according to a preliminary report released Friday by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
A “Malfunction Reporting Form” compiled by Suncor Energy estimated the refinery’s above-limit emissions resulting from a sudden power shutdown caused by a transmission line break just before 10 p.m. on March 11.
The report detailed emissions of more than 100 pounds of hydrogen sulfide and more than 500 pounds of sulfur dioxide. It also estimated a release of carbon monoxide measuring up to 1,120 parts per million.
Despite the excessive release of toxic gases, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE) asserted that air testing monitors performed by Suncor at ground level around the refinery perimeter had detected no harmful emissions.
The ground level air testing provided little relief to some area residents, who said they could smell the gaseous release.
“It’s pretty scary,” said Clayton Abkes, who lives near 58th and Emerson. “(It was) awful smelling.”
Suncor officials, who were not willing to go on-camera, spoke with CBS4’s Melissa Garcia over the phone.
“This loss of power was completely outside of Suncor’s control,” said Paul Newmarch, a spokesperson for Suncor. “And Suncor took a number of measures to minimize the impacts and reduce emissions caused by this loss of power.”
A separate and unrelated loss of power at the refinery, due to an Xcel Energy switching failure, in October 2016 sent bright yellow plumes of hydrocarbon-coated dust and gas billowing into the city skyline. The release is estimated to have put out more than 75,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide. The emission is 150 times greater than the CDPHE daily limit of 500 pounds that triggers an investigation.
In the October 2016 burn off as well as Saturday’s flare, Suncor officials put the blame onto Xcel, saying that the refinery relies on a steady supply of power.
Mark Stutz, a spokesperson for Xcel Energy, released a statement:
“Xcel Energy clearly understands Suncor’s frustration with this situation. Xcel Energy’s focus at this time, however, is to continue its investigation into the specifics of the most recent outage, to determine the exact cause and to determine what might be done to avoid such incidents in the future.
“We diligently work to deliver a continuous and sufficient supply of electric energy to our customers, and that includes exploring redundancy options and backup service. At times and despite our best efforts, however, power outages beyond the control of the company do occur, due to accidents, breakdown of equipment, weather or man-made events, and other issues. The continuing investigation will help determine the exact nature and cause of this event.”
The CDPHE was investigating both of the recent Suncor shutdown emissions that reportedly released an excess amount of gas.
The October 2016 and this month’s outages were not the only air quality incidents at Suncor in recent years that the state has investigated.
In a statement, Mark Salley, communications director for the CDPHE said:
“For exceedances of emission limits that occurred in the past, the Division took appropriate action through the inspection process to address issues of noncompliance.
Please use the following link to navigate to Suncor’s two air quality Operating Permits for additional details regarding applicable emission limits and requirements governing the facility.”
Newmarch said that Suncor had invested close to $1.6 Billion to improve the facility since purchasing it in 2003.
He said that area residents could see some additional flares over the next few days as the refinery gets back up and running to resume normal operations.