Suncor Shuts Down for Months Amid Equipment Malfunction, Investigations

By Trish Zornio

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s (CDPHE) Air Pollution Control Division continues to closely monitor the effects of the Commerce City-based Suncor oil refinery’s ongoing shutdown of equipment and fires over the holiday period.

Initial reports to CDPHE of the shutdown occurred on Dec. 22, with Suncor personnel indicating cold weather had caused the refinery to exceed its emissions, creating a cascading malfunction throughout it. One day after the shutdown report, Suncor reported the first of two fires on Dec. 23. According to local reports, two workers were injured and brought to the hospital. No official status is currently available on the severity of their injuries.

A spokesperson for the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) replied to inquiries stating that an investigation was immediate and ongoing and that no further information regarding the incident would be available pending investigation completion. The investigation process could take weeks or months. A second fire was later reported by Suncor personnel to CDPHE on Dec. 27, with the initial cause attributed to the ignition of backup hydrocarbon-laden water being drained from process units as part of the shutdown process.

Suncor recently announced it will close for months after cold weather incidents caused a malfunction in December. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also looking into discriminatory emission releases in Colorado after a North Denver resident’s letter surfaced stating concerns about the plant. Photo by Eric Heinz

The fire was extinguished, and while it was stated to have created lots of smoke, there were no reports of worker injuries. A CDPHE spokesperson replied to The G.E.S. Gazette inquiries that keeping the public informed is a top priority, and they are continuing to monitor the situation and emission exceedances. To date, CDPHE has received multiple incident reports of short-term emission exceedances that are associated with the shutdown as reported by Suncor personnel.

These exceedances include hydrogen sulfide from three plant flares as well as various heaters and boilers, sulfur dioxide from a plant incinerator, visible emissions limit from a plant flare, opacity exceedance from a fluidized catalytic cracking unit, and firebox temperature below minimum temperature requirements at the sulfur recovery plant.

No emission exceedances have been reported thus far in 2023 as Suncor’s shutdown continues, resulting in an overall decrease in total emissions per plant personnel. On Jan. 6, a Suncor official stated on the company website that data they gathered using local air quality monitors does not indicate any “acute public health concerns.”

“Specifically, concentrations for all compounds measured remained below acute health guideline values before, during and following the events leading up to Dec. 24,” Suncor stated on its website. “We are working with government officials, our customers, and other stakeholders to understand potential impacts to product supply in Colorado including gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and asphalt and we are working to secure alternate supply, with priority for emergency and essential services being considered to minimize the impact on Coloradans.”

According to CDPHE, it is unlikely that there will be a total elimination of all emissions during the next several months of closure. The department does not believe there are any ongoing threats to public health related to the shutdown at this time. Suncor’s ongoing closure and multiple investigations into plant operations by OSHA and CDPHE come at the same time as Suncor continues to be part of the focus of an active investigation into CDPHE compliance by the EPA.

The ongoing compliance review dates back to March 2022 when the EPA’s Office of External Civil Rights Compliance began efforts to ensure that the CDPHE was complying with the administration of federal civil rights laws under the Clean Air Act. This involved the EPA engaging with North Denver community members and the public at large regarding perspectives on environmental, health, and equity issues, and continued efforts are being made to engage with CDPHE on ensuring civil rights compliance and resolving the case.

However, the most recent Suncor shutdown and worker incidents have prompted additional EPA involvement as Suncor has obligations to report excess emissions or accidental releases of a variety of pollutants. These include the type of release, the pollutant involved, and the pollutant quantity. Although many of these reporting requirements are likely to fall under the state’s purview, other reporting requirements may be subject to the EPA and OSHA. This potential federal obligation was confirmed in a statement by the Region 8 EPA office which acknowledged their recent involvement.

“EPA is working closely with CDPHE and Suncor to ensure that the facility is meeting state and federal requirements for investigating, reporting and responding to these incidents,” the agency stated.

Per previous reporting in The G.E.S. Gazette, this is not the first time Suncor has violated health and environmental safety regulations.

In 2017, the 80216 zip code was ranked as the most polluted in the nation according to a study from ATTOM Data Solution. In 2019, the facility spewed an aluminosilicate catalyst throughout Commerce City, coating homes, vehicles, and parks in yellow ash and prompting two local schools into lockdowns. There was also a similar yellow plume incident in 2016. In 2020, CDPHE imposed its harshest penalty yet on Suncor at $9 million dollars.

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