Suncor Pollution Continues as Regulators Attempt to Crack Down

By Trish Zornio

Suncor Energy has yet again been put on notice by state regulators for violating pollution standards. The newest compliance advisory was issued recently by Colorado’s Water Quality Control Division.

The notice cites multiple exceedances of permitted effluent discharge for benzene and total suspended solids during the months of January and April, and it alleges that severe and persistent violations by the Commerce City refinery are in “significant noncompliance” of the Colorado Water Quality Control Act.

The move allows the division to further investigate if formal enforcement and penalties are warranted. For unknown reasons, the physical envelope mailed to Suncor containing the notice was apparently marked as “return to sender” and received back by the state on July 5, per CDPHE’s public databases.

The water compliance advisory comes amid ongoing monitoring at the facility that reveals sustained pollutant concerns, according to environmental advocates at Earthjustice. Per the group’s recent press release, the refinery is said to have discharged three times the proposed draft levels of poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) into the Sand Creek and South Platte rivers during the month of May.

Caitlin Miller, a specialist in water issues related to the refinery at Earthjustice, relayed the importance of elevated PFAS discharge, noting the segment of Sand Creek downstream from Suncor is designated as a drinking water supply.

“Multiple municipalities, like Thornton, Brighton and Aurora, have water intake wells that pull water from the river for municipal drinking water supply,” Miller said. “There’s no natural filtration that happens for PFAS in the South Platte River, so the PFAS Suncor discharges into Sand Creek will make their way into the South Platte River and downstream, impacting the intake supplies for downstream municipalities.”

Effluent discharge violations are only two of the regulatory measures Suncor is currently facing. In early June, the U.S. Department of Labor issued the facility a violation notice through its Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration branch.

The incident was cited as serious and given the maximum penalty of $15,625 for unexpected fires in December that led to two injured workers. Suncor has repeatedly refused to provide full details to the community about the injuries sustained.

Also in June, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its lengthy investigation findings into Suncor’s operations between 2016 and 2020. The investigation was requested by CDPHE in 2021. Results from that investigation showed the Colorado refinery to be among the worst in the country for pollution violations as compared to similar facilities nationwide, ranking as the worst for malfunctions that led to elevated sulfur dioxide emissions and the second-worst for malfunctions that increased hydrogen sulfide emissions. Both chemicals are highly toxic to humans.

Despite renewed pressure for state and federal regulators to crack down on Suncor’s violations, prior regulatory enforcements have proven largely ineffective. The most notable example came in 2020, when CDPHE won a $9-million settlement from Suncor for safety breaches.

However, in the years since Suncor has repeatedly breached permitted pollution levels with little to no additional recourse. The lack of ability by regulators to stop Suncor’s pollution violations has sparked an increased backlash from community members and renewed pressure on state and federal agencies. Yet according to the EPA investigation, equipment malfunctions were one of the driving forces behind the increased emissions, and a spokesperson with CDPHE confirmed equipment issues are more difficult for the state to enforce.

“State and federal rules and regulations generally do not dictate specific processing and operations equipment refineries must use or how often to upgrade equipment,” read a statement provided to The G.E.S. Gazette by CDPHE’s media team.

“The division can sometimes negotiate equipment upgrades as part of a settlement agreement to resolve an air quality violation,” the statement continued. “For example, as part of the historic March 2020 settlement, the division required Suncor to implement recommendations from a third party root cause investigation, which resulted in Suncor upgrading both of its Fluidized Catalytic Cracking Unit shutdown systems to help prevent a recurrence of previous incidents. Since those upgrades occurred, Suncor has not had FCCU (fluid catalytic cracking unit) shutdown incidents similar to those that were a part of the 2020 settlement.”

Teams from both CDPHE and the EPA stressed their commitment to taking the violations seriously, adding they are in coordination with each other and working on the next steps to decrease industrial pollution in Colorado. No further details were currently available.

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