EPA rejects parts of Colorado’s air quality permit for Suncor Energy refinery

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

In a partial win for local environmental groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered state air quality regulators to revise an air quality permit for Suncor Energy’s refinery in Commerce City.

The decision comes after the EPA approved a long-overdue permit renewal for one of the refinery’s plants last fall. Environmental groups submitted a pair of petitions in October 2022 objecting to the move, claiming state air regulators had failed to hold the Canadian oil and gas company accountable for repeated violations of the U.S. Clean Air Act.

“Improving air quality for the underserved communities affected by harmful air emissions from the Suncor refinery is a shared priority for EPA and CDPHE,” said EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker. “EPA will continue to work with Colorado to secure the refinery’s compliance with laws and regulations and protect the health of nearby residents.”

The EPA’s decision requires state air regulators to revisit portions of the permit concerning dust and carbon monoxide releases. Suncor Energy had repeatedly violated federal standards concerning both pollutants, including a 2019 incident at one of its fluid catalytic crack units that covered the nearby community with a layer of yellow-white scum. 

The decision also directs state regulators to consider whether they should require further improvements to the system, which helps transform crude oil into gasoline and diesel. Suncor Energy did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CPR News.

The decision isn’t a complete victory for environmental groups. The EPA rejected one petition from 350 Colorado, which called for the federal agency to reject the permit outright and potentially order Suncor Energy to cease operations. 

Earthjustice, an environmental legal advocacy group, filed a second petition on behalf of neighborhood organizations, GreenLatinos, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club. It called for the EPA to deny the permit or require substantial changes. The EPA chose the second option. 

“We’re grateful the EPA continues to listen to the concerns of environmental justice community members,” said Ean Thomas Tafoya, the Colorado state director of GreenLatinos. “But we want to echo what the community wants, which is a plan for the retirement and remediation of Suncor.”

Suncor Energy operates three separate plants at the Commerce City refinery complex. The permit at issue only covers Plant 2, which refines gasoline and other fuels. A separate permit covering Plant 1 and Plant 3 is currently under review after expiring in 2017. 

The Commerce City refinery has a long track record of pollution problems, including illegal releases of toxic compounds into the air and the water in nearby Sand Creek. Residents in low-income and largely Latino neighborhoods near the refinery complex have been heavily impacted by the pollution, which includes fine particles, carcinogenic benzene and per-and poly-fluoroalkyl compounds, a class of substances often dubbed “forever chemicals.”

Pollution problems surged this year after a pair of fires triggered a string of malfunctions at the refinery. The refinery was shut down for three months while the company made repairs and investigated the fires, which injured two workers, and led to more than $15,000 in fines from federal workplace safety authorities.

An EPA report released in June showed Suncor Energy’s Commerce City refinery has more malfunctions and unplanned pollution releases than similar facilities across the country.