COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (CBS4) – The attorney for Commerce City has sent a letter to Suncor notifying the oil refinery the city intends to file suit under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, alleging the facility may have polluted the city’s water supply with toxic “forever chemicals.” The city’s mayor says the lawsuit is mainly fueled by “hundreds” of complaints the city has received from concerned residents.

Suncor Oil Refinery in Commerce City (credit: Kevin Hartfield, CBS4)

“It’s greatly concerning, and mostly, it’s really concerning to the residents who live here, relying on a clean environment,” said Mayor Benjamin Huseman.

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The letter alleges the refinery may have polluted the city’s drinking water with chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. They are referred to as “forever chemicals,” because they build up in the body over time.

The letter says two types of PFAS chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, found in Commerce City’s drinking water, can cause developmental effects, cancer, and liver problems, among other health issues.

“The biggest thing is making sure that we have a safe and healthy environment for our residents, that’s critical and that’s you know one of the biggest things that we can be doing as a city council is making sure that environment exists for the people that are here as well as for the surrounding community,” said Huseman. “Ultimately that’s really what the desire of any action is going to be, is to reduce the release of those chemicals, and make sure that we don’t have to worry about whether or not we’re putting these chemicals in our water treatment facility plants.”

The South Adams County Water and Sanitation District supplies drinking water to Commerce City.

While there is no federal limit for PFAS, there is a recommended level of 70 parts per trillion for two PFAS chemicals: PFOS and PFOA.

In 2019, the district found PFAS levels that would be above the safe legal limits in Massachusetts and New York – an average level of 20 parts per trillion for just PFOS alone.

Since then, the district has implemented several mitigation efforts.

The district says those mitigation efforts include capital improvements to its raw groundwater distribution system, increased frequency of granular activated carbon change-outs at its water treatment plant, and purchased sophisticated equipment to test for PFAS in water as part of an in-house monitoring system. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has also been assisting the district with mitigation and monitoring of PFAS.

South Adams County Water and Sanitation District (credit: Kevin Hartfield, CBS4)

“SACWSD tests for PFAS at numerous points in its system approximately every two weeks and will continue to routinely test to ensure our water meets EPA and CDPHE guidance,” a spokesperson for the water district said. “To our knowledge, no other water provider in the State has this capacity or level of monitoring.”

The district said the most recent test only found 11 parts per trillion combined for PFOS and PFOA.

The water district also told CBS4 Investigates it appreciates Commerce City’s concern about water quality.

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“I think we’re very fortunate that our water district, they took it on their own to go out and test their water,” Huseman said. “So, it’s really good that we have a provider that is taking those steps… but even with those steps being taken, there’s still a concern.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment says it’s dedicating resources to handle PFAS concerns in Colorado. Recently, the state tested 400 water districts statewide for PFAS.

“Over half of the community water providers serving 98% of the population in Adams County have tested their treated water for PFAS. None of the treated drinking water tested was above the EPA’s health advisory level,” a spokesperson for the CDPHE said in a written statement to CBS4 Investigates. “This year, we are coordinating with Tri-County Health Department to identify areas in Adams County that may be at risk of these chemicals and test private and municipal drinking water. As part of this project, we are further exploring the area around Suncor. We are currently in the process of evaluating data for site selection: all test results, potential/known PFAS sources, and locations of private and water system wells used for drinking or irrigation.”

One question remains – is Suncor directly responsible for the PFAS pollution?

While the city’s letter says Suncor’s PFAS discharges exceeded EPA recommendations three times over the last year, the CDPHE says it doesn’t believe those discharges could affect the South Adams water supply, because the district’s wells are located upstream from the refinery.

In a written statement, a spokesperson for Suncor said, “Suncor Energy (U.S.A.) Inc. (“Suncor”) believes that the presence of PFOS/PFOA at the Commerce City refinery is due to the historical use of Class B firefighting foam, including use that predates our ownership of the facility. The refinery has already replaced its older Class B firefighting foam with a new foam that complies with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s PFOA Stewardship Program-2015 Requirements.”

(credit: Kevin Hartfield, CBS4)

The spokesperson also told CBS4 the company is reviewing the city’s letter. The company has 90 days to respond.

In the meantime, Suncor’s spokesperson also said the company has been working on a number of initiatives regarding PFAS, issuing the following written statement:

“Since 2018, the refinery has actively engaged with the other stakeholders and industries involved in the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment’s (CDPHE) proactive effort to gather and share data related to PFOS and PFOA. This includes participation in various stakeholder meetings, workshops and surveys, the development of CDPHE Water Quality Control Commission Policy 20-1, as well as research and water sampling.

Through a third party, we began regular sampling and testing of surface waters at Sand Creek and the South Platte River in August 2019. Results from surface water testing indicate that PFOS/PFOA compounds are present both upstream and downstream of the Commerce City refinery in varying levels both below and above the EPA’s health advisory of 70 ppt. Suncor has shared water sampling results with CDPHE, which are publicly available, and we continue to work closely with the state’s Water Quality Control Division on this matter. We have also provided updates about the refinery’s work to the City of Commerce City.

We are in the process of exploring PFOS/PFOA treatment options as part of our ongoing water improvement efforts. The refinery is currently conducting an engineering study to determine the optimal approach to treating the wastewater discharge stream. We are supportive of CDPHE’s wastewater permit renewal process, which is currently underway, and will implement the results from the engineering study to comply with any new discharge limits and other requirements once they are established in the permit.

This is a broad issue, and we will continue to do our part to address it.”

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Kati Weis