Four Years After Air Pollution Violations, Suncor Fined $10.5M by State

By Trish Zornio

More than four years after Suncor Energy violated air pollution standards, the state of Colorado has issued an enforcement package totaling $10.5 million against the Commerce City oil and gas refinery.

The new actions against Suncor were announced on Feb. 5 by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Air Pollution Control Division. The enforcement package was said to address multiple air pollution violations between July 2019 and June 2021. A total of $10.5 million will be paid by Suncor with the fines going toward a combination of penalties and improvement projects. According to a press release, this is the “largest state enforcement package against a single facility for air pollution violations” to date.

However, questions have been raised by local environmental groups as to whether or not the enforcement package is sufficient, specifically in light of significant delays in enforcement and the heavy impact of the air pollution violations on public health.

“We’re glad to see that Suncor will finally be required to make changes to prevent future violations, but residents should not have to wait over four years for Suncor to be held accountable,” said Ian Coghill, senior attorney for Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office. 

“Suncor Energy, which in 2022 alone made more than $27 billion in gross profits, once again gets away with a slap on the wrist with this minimal fine of $2.5 million for hundreds of violations over a three-year period,” said Ramesh Bhatt, chair of the Colorado Sierra Club conservation committee.

“While this enforcement action may be the largest in state history, it does not nearly deliver on the health improvements North Denver residents have been working towards,” said Ean Thomas Tafoya, GreenLatinos CO state director.

The violations in question include excessive emissions per regulatory standards for health and environment of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and hydrogen sulfide, in addition to several other failures by Suncor to meet essential operating standards.

At the same time, the APCD also announced a settlement with Suncor regarding debates over an updated fenceline monitoring plan. According to the release, the new plan has a hard enforcement date of December 2024 and is set to include a doubling of air monitors compared to what Suncor submitted and a more protective alert threshold than the company requested. 

These actions fall substantially short of advocate requests, particularly as related to monitoring additional pollutants, as well as the environmental and health impacts of enforcement timelines.

“Suncor’s repeated air pollution violations have harmed the surrounding community for decades. While the fenceline monitoring requirement is finally resolved, Suncor successfully avoided monitoring its entire fenceline for two years by filing this lawsuit,” said Coghill.

The G.E.S. Gazette has previously reported on local concerns regarding delays in state enforcement of pollution violations by Suncor. In those reports, a consistent lag of enforcement averaging more than two-and-a-half years between the date of an incident to a potential resolution was found. Prior to this month’s enforcement package, the most recent three settlements between the state and Suncor occurred on March 6, 2020, June 24, 2019, and April 19, 2018, with alleged incidents dating back to at least August 2017, October 2016 and September 2015 respectively. 

This timeline also reveals a nearly four-year hiatus of major enforcement by state officials between the most recent enforcement package and the last significant settlement with Suncor in March 2020.

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