State Considers Stricter Water Discharge Standards for Suncor

By Trish Zornio

As air quality concerns surrounding Suncor intensify, the oil and gas refinery also faces renewed scrutiny over water quality standards set by state and federal agencies.

According to a spokesperson at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), the agency has confirmed the Water Quality Control Division (WQCD) is considering significant changes to Suncor’s water discharge draft permit.

The move comes in response to the Environmental Protection Agency’s new health advisory level for what it calls “forever chemicals” in drinking water, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).

“The division is currently assessing its options regarding EPA’s new health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS,” the CDPHE spokesperson told The G.E.S. Gazette. “If the division makes any major change to Suncor’s PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) limit, then it would hold a second public comment period that is limited in scope to the change. At this time, the division has not made any determination in that regard.”

Suncor’s existing discharge permits, along with the proposed new draft permit by WQCD, do not currently require the facility to meet the most up-to-date EPA-advised health safety levels for PFOA and PFOS.

Reached for comment on why Colorado’s WQCD retains discretion over whether or not Suncor should be required to meet the latest EPA health advisory, an EPA spokesperson provided the following statement: “Drinking water health advisories are different than standards.

Health advisories are non-regulatory and are not legally enforceable. Drinking water health advisories reflect EPA’s assessment of health risks of a contaminant based on the best available science and provide advice and information on actions that water systems may take to address contamination, in this case, for these and other PFAS.”

The spokesperson added that the EPA would not be able to enforce the new health advisory until after public comments are reviewed and regulation for the chemicals is finalized. Local environmental advocates are responding by urging Colorado’s WQCD to uphold the strongest possible limits for PFOA and PFOS per the updated EPA health advisory.

“We urged the division to include the strongest possible limits in Suncor’s final permit, including non-detectable limits for PFAS as an entire class, or at least non-detectable limits for a subset of PFAS chemicals found in the facility’s water pollution, including PFOS and PFOA,” according to a statement from Earthjustice. “Since the public comment period closed last year, EPA issued interim revised HALs for both PFOS and PFOA that were orders of magnitude lower (than current draft permit levels).”

The statement continued, “The facility’s monitoring data from November 2022 shows that it discharged 1,100 parts-per-trillion (ppt) of PFOS alone that month — this amount is 55,000 times EPA’s interim revised HAL for PFOS of 0.02 ppt… In January 2023, Suncor discharged a combined total of 191 ppt of PFOS, PFOA, and PFNA, which is more than double the proposed 70 ppt limit in its draft permit.”

The statement by Earthjustice concludes that Suncor has clearly demonstrated it cannot reliably manage its toxic water discharges without strict oversight.

Publicly available documents show the facility releases excess PFOA and PFOS compared to the new health advisory. Suncor was recently found to have dumped excess levels of benzene into Sand Creek after an unexpected shutdown in December.

Suncor did not respond to The G.E.S. Gazette inquiries as to whether or not the facility would support meeting the newest EPA health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS. Debates over the more strict monitoring of water discharge levels for Suncor are happening as the facility already faces heavy scrutiny regarding excess air pollution.

As previously reported by The G.E.S. Gazette, local community group Cultivando released the results of their year-long air pollution monitoring data. The group’s findings have revealed new concerns for dangerous levels of air pollutants in the region, and the group’s latest press conference also presented findings that included previously unknown radioactive particles.

Asked how the EPA will respond to Cultivando’s latest community air monitoring results, the EPA’s Regional Administrator KC Becker committed the agency to learn more.

“EPA looks forward to fully evaluating Cultivando’s data and to future opportunities to support projects that help individuals and families understand and address air quality issues,” Becker said. “Community-based air monitoring is a high priority for EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and these data underscore how such efforts can identify serious local concerns. These grassroots monitoring efforts are empowering our most underserved communities as partners in protecting health and the environment.”

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