Suncor has more pollution problems than similar U.S. refineries, new EPA report finds

Suncor Oil Refinery
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Suncor oil refinery in Denver, June 2, 2020

A new report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finds that the Suncor Energy refinery in Commerce City has more malfunctions and more frequent unplanned pollution releases than other comparable facilities around the country, confirming the suspicions of many frustrated neighbors and climate advocates.

In addition, the report released Friday attributes the problems to poor communication, lax maintenance and insufficient inspection practices. EPA regional administrator KC Becker said the agency’s assessment was designed to help prevent future pollution releases.

“This is certainly not a paper exercise,” Becker said. “We know Suncor is important to the community. This report is one step among many we have taken — and will continue to take — to address air pollution. ”

Suncor Energy, a Canadian oil and gas company headquartered in Calgary, operates Colorado’s only oil and gas refinery in a largely industrial suburb north of Denver. The refinery is surrounded by heavily Latino and low-income neighborhoods exposed to high-than-average levels of air and water pollution. 

A spokesperson for Suncor Energy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ongoing problems at the refinery have grown more severe over the last few months. A December cold snap triggered a series of malfunctions leading to a three-month shutdown and a subsequent rise in gas prices. The company reported a long series of air pollution problems during the same period. Meanwhile, Cultivando, an local community group, measured a rise in pollutants at their independent air monitor near the refinery. 

The new report, however, does not focus on the most recent string of issues. The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment asked the EPA to conduct the report in 2021. With help from state health officials, the federal agency hired a contractor to examine air pollution releases at the facility from 2016 to 2020. It compared the results to 11 other similar U.S. refineries.

The report’s authors found that the Commerce City refinery had the greatest overall number of malfunctions resulting in excess emissions of sulfur dioxide. Short-term exposure to the gas can worsen asthma conditions and even leave healthy individuals struggling to breathe.

In addition, the Colorado refinery had the second-highest total number of unpermitted releases of hydrogen sulfide, a highly toxic gas that can irritate the eyes and lungs at lower doses. Higher concentrations can cause a loss of consciousness or death.

The EPA’s investigation found that equipment failure — especially with electrical systems and liquid control systems — was the most common cause of the problems at the Commerce City refinery. 

While the report couldn’t pin the problems on specific equipment, the authors conclude the type of failures suggest Suncor needs to improve its “preventive maintenance, inspection and testing” practices.

Scott Patefield, the Air and Toxics Enforcement Branch Chief for EPA Region 8, said those findings align with a separate 2021 report commissioned by the company, which found problems at the Commerce City refinery aren’t limited to equipment failures. A lack of proper maintenance practices was also a significant problem, that report found. 

It’s unclear if the EPA’s new report will lead to a crackdown from state or federal regulators. Becker said it’s “not EPA practice” to discuss any potential actions to force the company to fix the problems found in the report.

For its part, Kate Mallory, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, said the state will use the EPA’s report to inform future inspections and potential enforcement. The state is also in the process of hiring a refinery expert to help the department reduce future pollution problems. 

Local advocates aren’t convinced better equipment or procedures would have much effect.

Lucy Molina, a Commerce City resident and community organizer with climate group 350 Colorado, said the EPA’s findings prove the company and government authorities have failed to communicate the full extent of pollution from the refinery. Going forward, she thinks the best option is for officials to align around a plan to shutter the facility as quickly as possible.

“It pisses me off,” Molina said. “It’s time for them to pack up and go.” 

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