Suncor Refinery Problems Cause Concern for Local Leaders

By Trish Zornio

Denver leaders are increasing their calls for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and the Environmental Protection Agency to address Suncor Refinery’s safety concerns as it continues to make headlines for repeated violations.

Concerns about Suncor’s violations have mounted as the Commerce City-based refinery experienced multiple safety incidents after an unplanned shutdown over the holidays. Impacts include the pollution of Sand Creek with benzene levels 40% to 80% above allowances, and workplace injuries after a fire burned two employees. Full details on both incidents remain limited as the company has been slow to release information to the public.

The lack of transparency from Suncor has led to increasing local worry about the company’s commitment to working with the greater Denver community. In addition to Denver-based editorial boards calling for improved communication from the refinery, local leaders and officials now hope the extreme events will spur major change.

“The issues with Suncor are not new, but happy to see the attention on them which is new and makes me hopeful something can finally be done,” Denver District 9 Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca said.

She added that residents have long expressed their experiences will pollution-related illnesses, but that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has historically failed to act.

Ian Coghill, an attorney at Earthjustice, has spearheaded ongoing legal efforts on behalf of the community and environmental groups to press state and federal agencies to readdress how they manage Suncor’s impacts.

“The pollution is placing a disproportionate burden on our disadvantaged communities,” Coghill said.

The safety impacts on human health and the environment in marginalized areas are among the chief reasons his team has filed a petition with the EPA to object to one of the refinery’s recently renewed operating permits. But some positive changes in how the EPA responds to pollution in Colorado are being noted by locals, including the agency’s ongoing investigation into CDPHE and its monitoring practices that oversee Suncor.

As Coghill understands it, the investigation is one of the first of its kind without a Title VI trigger. Others agreed the changes are welcome.

“I thank one person in particular for getting us some serious attention to our concerns, and that is KC Becker with the EPA,” said CdeBaca. “She allowed me and several community leaders to take her on a tour of our neighborhoods on both sides of the county line to show her our concerns. She took the visit seriously and took action in response. That is real leadership.”

The Region 8 EPA office was unable to offer updates on the pending investigation into CDPHE, but Becker confirmed the tour with local leaders last year.

“The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to addressing concerns of communities who are overburdened with pollution,” Becker said.

“A big part of that effort is hearing directly from residents on how their life is impacted living next to industrial facilities,” Becker continued. “I appreciated community leaders and residents of North Denver/Commerce City taking the time to show me and representatives from CDPHE the North Denver/ Commerce City area. EPA will continue to be engaged with the local community and work to address environmental injustices that impact public health.”

Despite multiple investigations into Suncor’s practices, more safety violations by the company may already be underway.

“Based on new laws for fenceline monitoring set forth by the state legislature, Suncor was required to have its fenceline monitoring system up and running already, including a public access website. To the best of my knowledge, they have failed to do this in full.”

CdeBaca also said she doubts Suncor’s ability to reduce harm moving forward.

“It is highly unlikely Suncor’s safety hazards and worker violations can ever be fully remedied,” she said. “I personally dream of a community where I do not breathe the byproducts of an oil and tar sand refinery and I think that is what many of us who have experienced environmental racism hope and dream of. Denver residents deserve better don’t we?”

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