EPA Alleges Colorado Regulators Failed to Properly Review Suncor’s Operating Permit for More Than a Decade

Photo of Suncor from wildearthguardians.org. Photo by Josh Gordy

Last month the Environmental Protection Agency formally objected to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s approval of Suncor’s operating permit. Among its many concerns was the state’s failure to review the permit adequately for over a decade.

“Title V permits are required to be renewed every five years,” stated the 15-page objection notice signed by Regional Administrator K.C. Becker. “A renewal application was submitted by Suncor in 2010 … but the state did not act on the 2010 renewal application until the present proceeding.” 

The alleged decade-plus lapse by CDPHE comes as the EPA also highlighted that state regulators meanwhile permitted Suncor to proceed with over four dozen modifications to the permit since the last revision in 2009. The discrepancies in oversight contributed heavily to additional concerns described by the EPA notice regarding public access to open comment periods and environmental justice.

Title V operating permits, like Suncor’s, are specifically designated for major contributors of pollution per the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. This is fully acknowledged by CDPHE’s website, where it details the essential criteria that must be met including five-year renewals, certified source compliance, sufficient monitoring and recordkeeping, and availability for public comment. 

As one of the top polluters in the state, Suncor has been designated as a Title V permit holder since shortly after its 2005 acquisition. Yet the EPA notice rightfully calls into question each aspect of the essential criteria; both in Suncor’s ability to meet it, and in the state’s ability to regulate it.

This isn’t the first time Suncor has been in the public’s eye for violating health and environmental safety regulations, perhaps an expected outcome of overly lax regulation and enforcement. 

In 2017, the region was ranked as the most polluted in the nation. In 2019, the facility spewed an aluminosilicate catalyst throughout Commerce City, coating everything from homes to vehicles to parks in a yellow ash and prompting two local schools into lockdowns. For locals, it was eerily familiar to a former yellow plume incident in 2016.

After substantial violations of air quality over the years, the combination of events ultimately led CDPHE to impose its harshest penalty yet to the tune of $9 million dollars in 2020. However, in light of the newly alleged failure to meet the essential Title V permitting criteria for so long, any prior state or federal actions now appear well below what would have been called for. 

The failure to sufficiently monitor air quality at the state level–as well as the EPA’s leniency for Colorado under former leadership–raises a host of environmental and health implications for local residents. For example, a newly released study in the journal Atmosphere demonstrated a quantifiable effect of poor air quality caused directly by gas flares releasing black carbon–otherwise known as soot or particulate matter–linking at least dozens of premature deaths in the U.S. to this form of pollutant. 

Black carbon particles are also known to heavily degrade human health via impaired lung functioning, heart disease, and strokes, and although robust quantifications on secondary impacts are generally lacking to date, the impact to humans is thought to be in relatively high numbers. There are also thought to be immense risks to pregnant people living or working nearby to refinery operations with gas flares, including negative impacts to fetal growth and/or preterm birth.

Inadequate regulation of air quality and the subsequent impacts are extremely relevant nationwide as the United States faces unprecedented levels of use of toxic gas flaring. In one analysis using data obtained between 2014 and 2018 by local researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Colorado School of Mines, the U.S. ranked fourth behind only Russia, Iraq, and Iran for the most use of flaring techniques.

Although the EPA objection notice is a step toward increased enforcement of regulations, it’s critical to note Suncor’s permit was not outright denied permanently. In the letter is a series of requests for documentation, justifications, collaboration, and other general proof in order for the EPA to consider a new, revised version of the Title V permit. Denver residents wanting to learn more about the permit or process are invited to visit CDPHE’s web page for Suncor directly.

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