Equipment malfunction causes significant air pollution at Suncor

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

Residents near the Suncor refinery in Commerce City should exercise caution when conducting outdoor activities Saturday following a report from the company that it exceeded permitted levels of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, according to state public health officials.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air Pollution Control Division detected elevated levels of air pollution at the refinery after Suncor sent out an alert just past midnight on Saturday. The division said it will continue information from nearby air monitors.

State health officials say a malfunction of sulfur recovery equipment in Plant 1 occurred Friday around 11 p.m. that released excess air pollutants including sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. The emission levels began dropping around 4 a.m. Saturday.   

According to Suncor’s incident report posted online at 4:52 a.m., the issue was resolved and the equipment was restarted. No injuries were reported. 

Exposure to such air pollutants can cause headaches and difficulty breathing, especially for those with asthma; it can also irritate skin, eyes and throat.

People should limit outdoor activities, keep windows and doors closed and use an indoor purifier when potentially unhealthy levels of air pollution happen.

The Canadian oil and gas company has experienced several incidents at the Commerce City plant dating back to December 2022. Two employees were injured in a flash fire on Christmas Eve. At the time, the plant was shut down for maintenance and freezing temperatures. 

The U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to hear a 2018 climate lawsuit brought by Boulder County, the City of Boulder, and San Miguel County. The decision has led to a state court to consider the companies paying for the damage.