The Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City has long been one of the Denver metro area’s biggest sources of air pollution, spewing a variety of potentially hazardous gases into some of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. Now, U.S. Representative Diana DeGette wants to close a loophole in federal law that allows the plant to emit more than 25,000 pounds of hydrogen cyanide annually into the air above north Denver.
“We cannot sit back and allow our community’s health to be placed in jeopardy like this,” DeGette, a Democrat who represents Colorado's 1st Congressional District, said at a press conference at the Focus Points Family Resource Center in Elyria-Swansea on Tuesday, March 19.
Next week, DeGette plans to introduce legislation to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to set stricter limits on the amount of hydrogen cyanide that can be emitted from sources like the Suncor refinery. Under current law, because the EPA has not set a maximum threshold for cyanide emissions, companies like Suncor have been allowed to suggest their own limits, subject to the approval of state air-quality regulators.
“Suncor was able to tell the state how much it intended to pump into the air each year, adding a little bit more to give themselves a buffer,” said DeGette. “To me, that’s ludicrous. Instead of saying, ‘Let’s find out what’s safe and what’s not,’ they said, ‘Well, nobody knows the exact limit, so let’s just go ahead and pump as much as you want.’”
“Suncor strives for continuous improvements across our business, including reducing emissions,” the company said in a statement issued Tuesday. “Suncor aims to operate our facility safely, with an unwavering commitment to the value of safety above all else. This also applies to the safety of our employees and the community.”
Hydrogen cyanide is a byproduct of a process called fluid catalytic cracking, which is performed by two separate refining units at Suncor’s facility in Commerce City. A performance test conducted in September 2015 estimated that the refinery’s West Plant emitted hydrogen cyanide at a rate of 17,120 pounds per year, state records show. The facility’s East Plant releases roughly 2,600 pounds of the gas per year.
In high concentrations, exposure to hydrogen cyanide can be fatal. Originally developed as a pesticide, the gas was deployed as a chemical weapon in World War I, and later used by Nazi Germany in gas chambers at Auschwitz and other extermination camps. Chronic exposure to small amounts of the gas may cause headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, eye irritation and other symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In January 2018, Suncor asked officials at the Colorado Department of Health and Environment to approve a modification to the refinery’s air-quality permits that would allow the emission of up to 25,600 pounds of hydrogen cyanide per year. Despite objections from Adams County Commissioners and north Denver community groups, then-Governor John Hickenlooper’s administration approved the permit modification. DeGette says that was the wrong decision, but believes the responsibility to set stricter limits ultimately lies with federal regulators.
“The state doesn’t have the correct rules, and the federal government doesn’t have the correct rules,” she said. “I think the EPA needs to set those standards for the states.”
Communities like Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, home to many low-income and Latino residents, have long dealt with the health and environmental impacts of industrial pollution. For most of the twentieth century, smelting plants in north Denver contaminated soil with lead, arsenic and other toxic chemicals, and in 1999 much of the area was designated as an EPA Superfund site. After decades of cleanup efforts, the agency announced earlier this year it plans to remove the area from its Superfund list.
More recently, environmental groups have blamed air pollution from the Suncor refinery and other sources for a variety of negative health effects experienced by nearby residents. A 2014 report by the Denver Department of Environmental Health found that residents of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea “experience a higher incidence of chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and asthma than other Denver neighborhoods.” DeGette says that the people of north Denver deserve better.
“This whole area is an area of environmental justice,” she said.