COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (CBS4) – State regulators are currently in negotiations with Suncor Energy over more than 100 unmet standards and violations at its Commerce City refinery. The company tells CBS4 it is working to resolve the compliance advisory, but people in nearby communities are concerned this process won’t curb what they believe are ongoing issues at the site.
In the past, the company has paid significant amounts in settlements, ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions.
Suncor Energy has owned and operated the refinery since purchasing it for $30 million in 2005. According to the company’s website, the 98,000 barrel-per-day refinery produces gasoline, diesel fuel and paving-grade asphalt.
Mother of two, Lucy Molina, lives just over a mile away from the plant in a small neighborhood tucked on the side of Brighton Boulevard.
“I love it because I’ve grown to love all my neighbors and the kids that play with my children, but we’re what you would call a marginalized community,” Molina said.
Since moving to the neighborhood seven years ago, Molina says visits to the doctor for her kids became a normal thing. From her kitchen, she showed off a pile of medical records, that document a number of reoccurring issues.
“My daughter has been suffering from chronic headaches, which is migraines. My son was suffering from bloody nose,” Molina said. “I was advised to move from my doctor, ‘Lucy, you’ve got to get away from there. Maybe that’s what’s affecting your kids.’”
On Dec. 11, 2019 Molina found herself more concerned than normal. That’s the day a yellow clay-like substance was released from nearby Suncor Energy, causing nearby schools to lock down.
“It was falling everywhere,” Molina said. “I mean, they did offer us a car wash because it fell on people’s cars, but it also fell on our grass, on our houses and on the trees.”
At the time of the incident, Suncor said the substance was non-hazardous, and the result of putting too much torch oil into what’s called a fluidized catalytic cracker unit. The company restarted the piece of equipment about a month later.
While state regulators have since said pollution levels from the incident didn’t exceed national standards, Molina says she went to the ER for chest pains two days later.
“For the two weeks, I was in and out of the clinic trying to figure out why I had chest pains,” Molina said.
Later in December, Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division, part of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, sent Suncor a lengthy compliance advisory. It details more than 100 self-reported air quality violations since 2018, which range from hours-long leaks and visible emission events to unregulated flares of hydrogen sulfide.
“This is a very significant compliance advisory, especially in early 2019 they had a very large number of violations that we’re very concerned about,” said John Putnam, director of environmental programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
According to Putnam, who joined CDPHE in 2019, the goal of such advisories is to get Suncor, or other alleged violators, back into compliance. Settlement can include significant fines.
This January, CBS4 learned Suncor self-reported at least five more issues to the state with numerous possible violations, including visible emissions, excess sulfur dioxide, and what the company calls “opacity events.”
Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director with Wild Earth Guardians, a Denver-based advocacy group described an opacity event as “an indicator of how unhealthy that air pollution is, and the thicker the smoke, the thicker the gas, the more unhealthy (sic) it is.”
Nichols and his colleagues frequently monitor the documents Suncor self-reports to the state regarding malfunctions and startup or shutdown incidents. He’s critical of both Suncor and state regulators.
“When you release air pollution you are impacting the air that we all breathe, and if you can’t protect that air and do it right, then you shouldn’t be allowed to pollute,” Nichols said. “At some point, you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Wait a minute, if they keep violating, why isn’t anything changing? If the state takes these enforcement actions seriously, why aren’t they stopping the violations?’”
“We devote more of our inspector capability to that facility than any other single facility,” said Putnam.
According to Putnam, the state doesn’t fine for each individual violation. Instead, regulators look at problems and patterns over a year or two’s time and notify the company about any issues or potential fines.
The department will then work with the company to negotiate a resolution or settlement. Environmental impact, the company’s cooperation, past violations, and culpability are all taken into consideration, among other factors.
In the 2019 fiscal year, CDPHE settled 237 enforcement actions and assessed $3,196,176 in penalties, a department spokesperson said.
“I’d also note that their objective is not necessarily to collect the most fines, the objective is to get people back in compliance and we’re working hard to figure out how to get them into compliance as quickly and completely as we can,” Putnam said.
Currently, the state can fine violators a maximum of $15,000 per day for air quality violations and $10,000 per day for water quality violations.
“The majority of fines that we levy are below the maximum, reflecting that often, violators didn’t cause any particular damage, even though they were violating the law,” Putnam said recently while testifying about House Bill 20-1143 before the State House Energy & Environment Committee. “There could be other mitigating factors in that they cooperated in self-disclosing.”
That bill, which passed in committee in February, would raise maximum fines to $47,357 per day for both types of violations.
“I will tell you clearly, this is not a Suncor bill,” said Rep. Dominique Jackson, a co-sponsor of the bill.
At a January rally to show support for the bill, Rep. Jackson and other co-sponsors said the goal is to give people in heavily polluted areas a voice and some power. Currently, the Denver metro area has some of the highest pollution levels in the country, and higher fines could keep frequent polluters in compliance.
“I would think that that amount of monetary damages might give one pause to double check their systems and their operations,” Rep. Jackson said.
If the bill becomes law, fine money would go into a newly-created community impact cash fund. It would also create an environmental justice advisory board and environmental justice ombudsperson position to choose environmental mitigation projects in affected communities such as Mary Hernandez’s Swansea.
“They’re polluting the people,” said Hernandez. “I think that they’re actually giving the people a lot health issues.”
Hernandez, like Lucy Molina, wants to know what role Suncor has in her family’s health issues.
“It’s been pretty bad for all of us,” she said. “A lot of headaches, a lot of breathing issues, a lot of hay fever, asthma.”
Suncor declined an interview with CBS4, but released the following statement:
“We understand there are concerns with our refinery’s performance among our neighbors and the broader community. They expect more from us, and we are committed to improving our performance and rebuilding trust with our neighbors.
Suncor reports to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in accordance with applicable legal requirements. We are continuing to work with CDPHE through its processes to resolve the compliance advisory.”
According to a company spokesperson, the Commerce City Refinery, which employs about 500 employees, supplies about a third of Colorado’s gasoline demand and about half of the state’s diesel demand.
“We supply much of the jet fuel for Denver International Airport, and we are the state’s largest asphalt supplier,” the spokesperson said via email.
Suncor says its operations indirectly support approximately 5,000 additional jobs, creating an overall economic impact estimated by the company at about $2.5 billion annually.