The EPA is considering a new air pollution crackdown against Suncor’s Commerce City refinery

The Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City with several large pipes and other heavy machinery pictured.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City, Colorado, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022.

Suncor Energy is facing new scrutiny from state and federal environmental regulators due to alleged air quality violations at its Commerce City refinery. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environmental notified the company of the potential violations last week. The 140-page document details releases of toxic compounds like benzene and other air pollutants. It also compiles problems found during an inspection of the refinery in October 2023, including cracked tanks leaking plumes of hydrocarbons detected with an infrared camera. 

The notice is the first step of a full investigation that could lead to fines or other penalties. Ian Coghill, a senior attorney with the environmental legal advocacy group Earthjustice, said it's the first time he’s seen the federal government lead an enforcement action against Suncor Energy. 

“It could be a pretty big deal,” Coghill said. “When it comes to potential penalties, there’s a big difference in what the EPA could impose versus the state.” 

If air quality regulators confirm Suncor broke air pollution rules, state and federal authorities can require the company to pay a civil penalty based on the duration of the violation. The maximum fine under Colorado law is about $50,000 per day. Under federal law, Cogill said the federal government can require a company to pay upwards of $121,000 per day. 

The Suncor facility is Colorado’s only oil and gas refinery, processing 98,000 barrels of crude oil per day in a heavily Latino neighborhood north of Denver. A recent EPA report found the facility has more unplanned pollution releases and malfunctions than similar facilities across the country, confirming the suspicions of many nearby residents frustrated by years of smoke plumes, foul odors and explosions coating the area in fine dust. 

Colorado has taken action to crack down on past pollution problems at the refinery. In February, the company agreed to a $10.5 million settlement due to repeated air quality violations between July 2019 and June 2021. While state regulators called it the largest air pollution penalty in Colorado history, the company only paid $2.5 million in direct fines. Suncor spent the remaining $8 million to improve a faulty power system behind the problems. 

The lack of a more aggressive and rapid crackdown has frustrated local residents and environmental advocates. In June, a coalition of environmental groups notified the company of their intent to file a citizen lawsuit under the U.S. Clean Air Act, which allows residents to use the courts to force improvements if a company isn’t fixing an ongoing pollution issue. 

That complaint, however, won’t move forward if the federal or state government moves to file a separate lawsuit against the company within 60 days. 

Coghill, the Earthjustice attorney, is leading the lawsuit on behalf of the environmental advocates. He said the recently announced plans to investigate Suncor’s pollution issues shouldn’t interfere with the case. 

Suncor Energy did not immediately respond to CPR News’ request for comment.