Two Suncor employees were burned in a flash fire at the Commerce City refinery. That incident and others are raising questions about worker safety

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City, Colorado, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022.

Suncor Energy has issued its first update on two employees burned in a fire at its Commerce City refinery on Christmas Eve. 

Loa Esquilin Garcia, a spokesperson with the Canadian oil and gas company, confirmed one employee has returned to work while the other continues to recover at home. She did not offer any further details about the cause or extent of the injuries.

"The investigation into the December 24 incident is ongoing and safety above all else remains our top priority," Garcia said in a statement. "We responded immediately to the incident as per our emergency response protocol."

The flash fire was one of a series of mishaps at the refinery during a brutal cold snap last month. While the Canadian oil and gas company hasn't explained the cause of the malfunctions or the extent of the damage, the problems forced it to shut down production during repairs. It expects to resume full operations in late March.

State regulators have found the malfunctions likely triggered potentially illegal releases of toxic pollutants into the air and a creek near the refinery, which borders predominantly Latino neighborhoods. Those revelations have tempered excitement among the community and environmental activists who initially hoped for a reprieve from long-standing pollution problems.

A prolonged shutdown has also driven concerns about rising fuel prices. In response, Gov. Jared Polis eased trucking rules to assist companies bringing gas and diesel from outside Colorado, but that may not have been enough to hold down costs. Since the problems started last month, the American Automobile Association reports an average gallon of regular gas in Colorado is now 25 percent more expensive. 

Meanwhile, outside Colorado, stock analysts and industry observers have focused on the mysterious worker injuries. That's due to Suncor's safety record at its extensive oil sand operations in Alberta, where Canadian authorities have recorded 12 worker deaths since 2014. Five of those workers have died since 2021.

Those fatalities have driven major turmoil within the company.

Last year, former CEO Mark Little resigned a day after a 26-year-old contract worker was struck by equipment and died near Fort McMurray. Prosecutors in Alberta also filed criminal charges against Suncor Energy for the death of another worker who drowned after his bulldozer broke through the ice atop a frozen tailings pond. 

Some experts now worry the company's worker safety problems aren't confined to Canada. 

Following the December 2022 fire at the Colorado refinery, a Wells Fargo energy analyst downgraded an evaluation of Suncor's stock, saying the accident indicated "the company's operational challenges are no longer limited to the oil arena" and suggested "a deeper cultural shortfall."

Sean Tucker, a professor of occupational health and safety at the University of Regina, echoed those concerns. 

"If you've systemic problem in one part of the business, it's generally not contained to that part of the business," Tucker said. "Well-managed oil and gas companies don't have these issues." 

Tucker started tracking Suncor after multiple media outlets asked about the string of recent fatalities. In looking for patterns, he said many of the deaths are young contract workers who often lack training and direct supervision. Noting the same trend, Suncor announced a plan last November to decrease its contract workforce by 20 percent.

While the company has taken steps to improve its track record, Tucker worries the deaths could signal a dangerous shift. As governments force a transition away from fossil fuels due to climate change, oil and gas companies might skimp on maintenance and safety to preserve profits

"I'm not saying that's what Suncor is doing, but that question is going to come up for all refiners in the next decade or two: How are we gonna manage the winddown of these facilities?" Tucker said.

It's still unclear what caused the Commerce City refinery fire, but records from emergency responders provide some new details.

The first sign of trouble came from a 911 call. At 11:01 a.m. on Christmas Eve, a Suncor employee called the Adams County dispatch to request an ambulance at the refinery's western plant. 

The worker provided a call-back number for the refinery's security office and told dispatchers she knew little about the nature of the emergency, saying certain employees needed medical attention in the "main control room."

"They said they need an ambulance here right away and then hung up," the employee told dispatchers.

Recorded radio communications between emergency personnel reveal Suncor's fire department responded along with the South Adams County Fire Department and Adams County Fire Rescue. After arriving on the scene, two ambulances took a pair of burn victims to the UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora. 

Over the next hour and a half, South Adams County firefighters reported using water to keep the fire from spreading at the refinery, emergency radio communications show. One first responder noted the company had shut off all valves to the location except one damaged in the blaze. The government firefighters were released from the refinery emergency at 12:48 p.m. 

The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration has opened an investigation into the fire and accident that injured the workers. Juan Rodríguez, a spokesperson in the agency's Dallas office, said the work is focused on one employee who was hospitalized "due to a burn from a gas release that resulted in a fire." 

He added that Suncor officials reported the incident to the agency, which is required under federal law when any injury results in hospitalization, death, the loss of an eye or an amputation. OSHA has six months to complete the investigation. Rodríguez said his agency anticipates it won't complete the job before the deadline.

Michael Adams, who worked at the refinery from 1999 to 2020, now represents his former coworkers through the United Steelworkers Union. He had few solid details about the accident but, he’d heard cold weather cracked pipes and caused a vapor release. The fire likely occurred when escaping gas was sparked by an on-site ignition source, he said.

If that is what happened, Adams said it’s not evidence that Suncor is ignoring worker safety. Adams said the company can always do more to protect employees but said he never felt Suncor put him in an unsafe situation while he worked at the refinery. At the same time, he acknowledged risks are inherent to any work at an oil and gas refinery. 

"They don't bake cookies. They boil oil. There's always a safety concern," Adams said.