By Conor McCue

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (CBS4) – Suncor Energy on Monday announced the findings of an independent, third-party investigation into emissions at its Commerce City refinery. The investigation led by Kearney was part of a $9 million settlement agreement between Suncor and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to resolve more than 100 pollution violations. 

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The final report concluded that the Commerce City Refinery is adequately funded and designed to meet environmental permits during steady-state operations. It also identified gaps in “site culture, staff capability and/or processes” that led to underestimating the risk associated with certain activities.  

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“While the site (and Suncor corporate) have very clear and appropriate policies for dealing with identified risks, the frequent underestimating of risk contributed directly to most of the exceedances and incidents within the scope of this report,” it stated. 

Suncor released an improvement plan on Monday that includes additional upgrades to its automatic shutdown systems for gasoline making units. Officials say these upgrades will significantly reduce the potential for catalyst releases.

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Donald Austin, vice president of the Commerce City Refinery, tells CBS4 the company is also working to improve training, communication, and a culture that encourages employees to question and look outward for knowledge. As recommended by Kearney, Suncor also plans to design, build, and operate an on-site training simulator for employees to work through various scenarios.

“Part of doing these third-party reviews is to learn somethings you don’t see yourself, so there were some things in there, but in the main, I would say not a surprise but did give us confidence we’re doing the right things,” said Donald Austin, vice president of the Commerce City refinery. “I would say the blind spot was more to do with how we could improve our training more in the use of some simulators and involvement of more knowledge from outside of the refinery.” 

In 2020, Suncor upgraded the automatic shutdown system in Plant 2. Officials plan to upgrade the same system in Plant 1 by the end of June. The company also plans to have a Programmable Logic Controller as well as upgraded instrumentation, automated shutdown valves and new hydraulic pressure units by 2023 to make the shutdown process more reliable. 

The total cost to implement the improvements is $12 million, which exceeds the initial $5 million commitment from Suncor as part of the settlement with the state. Officials say upgrades to Plant 2 alone will cost $10 million. 

“We have room for improvement, and we will improve, and we hope to share that and share that journey with the community,” Austin said. 

Steve O’Dorisio, Commissioner for Adams County district 4, said the report’s findings about culture and training at the refinery were disappointing and “what we’ve feared the most.” Moving forward, he said he wants to see company executives acknowledge the problems directly to the community and hopes the state will hold the company to its promises.  

“I want to see some of these recommendations and fixes baked into the conditions for future air and water quality permits,” O’Dorisio said. 

In a press release Tuesday, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) said it was reviewing the findings of the Kearney report. Trisha Oeth, director of environmental boards and commissions and acting environmental policy advisor, said in a statement, “these are important insights, and an independent, third-party investigation was crucial to bringing them to light.” 

Under the terms of the department’s settlement with Suncor, the CDPHE now has 30 days to review Suncor’s implementation plan and approve it or notify Suncor of its disapproval. 

“We will evaluate Suncor’s implementation plan to determine if it closes the gaps Kearney identified,” said Oeth. “But more importantly, we’ll evaluate the plan with an eye toward protecting the health and wellbeing of those living, working and going to school in the area. Everyone deserves clean air to breathe, and we are committed to ensuring that the settlement we reached with Suncor serves the needs of the local communities.” 

To read more about the investigation and Suncor’s improvement plan, click here

Conor McCue