When Lucy Molina and her family moved from one side of Commerce City to the other five years ago, there was one thing that she and her kids immediately loved about their new home: the small park nearby, practically in their back yard, with a playground and plenty of green space to run around in.
“My kids were ten and eight when we got to this house, so they were still little; they were always playing outside,” Molina says. Then the symptoms started. “We started getting migraines, headaches. My son started getting bloody noses.”
There’s no shortage of sources of industrial pollution in Commerce City, or just to the south in Denver neighborhoods like Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, a predominantly low-income and Latino area that one 2017 analysis named as the most polluted zip code in the country. The smelting plants built in the late nineteenth century established north Denver as the city’s chief industrial zone, and over the decades, everything from an Xcel Energy coal plant to a wastewater treatment facility to the foul-smelling Purina pet-food factory gradually followed.
Today the lead smelters are gone, and the Xcel plant now runs on natural gas. But there’s one industrial behemoth still doing largely the same work as the day it began operations almost a century ago. The Suncor Energy oil refinery, first opened in 1931, supplies the region with more than a third of its gasoline, and Denver International Airport with most of its jet fuel — and in the process, it spews a nasty cocktail of toxic chemicals into the air above some of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.
North Denver’s notoriously poor air quality varies from day to day, but for Molina and many others who live in the shadow of the sprawling Suncor facility, which straddles Brighton Boulevard just south of Interstate 270, the refinery can be a constant, looming presence, never far out of mind. They worry about getting calls and texts like the ones Molina started receiving one morning in December, asking if she’d heard about a reported malfunction at the refinery.
“I freaked out,” she says. “I started getting all these messages from people, like, ‘Are your kids okay? There’s a lockdown at Adams City Middle School.’ My heart just started pounding.”
The Suncor refinery’s “operational upset,” as the company later described it in a statement, began just before 11 a.m. on December 11, when too much “torch oil” was added to the facility’s fluidized catalytic cracker (FCC) unit. A plume of yellowish material drifted out into the Commerce City neighborhoods north of the plant, where it fell on cars and other outdoor surfaces, alarming residents and causing two nearby schools to be placed on lockout.
It was similar to an incident caused by a power outage at the facility in October 2016, when reports described a “yellow-orange smoke plume” that also caused a brief lockout of Adams County 14 schools. The ash that rained down on Commerce City in the most recent incident, Suncor said, was “catalyst,” a clay-like aluminosilicate material used to increase fuel yields in the refining process.
“This incident does not reflect the level of care and concern that we have for the community around us,” Suncor said in an apology for the December 11 incident. “We know that you expect more from us and we want you to know that we expect more from ourselves.”
Originally founded as a Canadian subsidiary of American oil giant Sunoco in 1919, Calgary-based Suncor Energy gradually grew into a giant in its own right and became fully independent in 1995. Most of its business is concentrated in the Alberta oil sands — one of the largest and most controversial oil-production projects in the world, notorious for the open-pit mining techniques that have wreaked ecological havoc on the region’s landscapes. Though Suncor owns three other refineries in Canada, the Commerce City plant, which employs about 500 people, is its only major U.S.-based holding.
In its initial statements on the catalyst release, Suncor wrote that the emitted material was “classified as non-hazardous,” but subsequent documentation released by the company painted a more complicated picture. The catalyst materials used at the plant are, in fact, rated as slight health hazards under the National Fire Protection Association’s hazard identification scale, and Suncor advised residents who came into contact with the substance to “take standard hygiene practices such as washing hands and/or any affected clothing.” But in the days after the incident, Molina says, she had to take her son to the doctor after he complained of itchy and irritated skin.
“Why do we have to put up with this?” Molina asks. “Not only do I have to be scared of lockdowns because of shootings or threats — now we have lockdowns because of the air that my kids are breathing?”
Amid growing concerns from residents following several recent incidents like the catalyst release, there are signs that state health officials might be nearing their most aggressive crackdown on the refinery to date. In a “compliance advisory” sent to Suncor in December, regulators with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment listed more than fifty pages of alleged violations recorded over the last two years. It’s not the first time that CDPHE officials have sent Suncor a compliance advisory, a process that typically leads to a negotiated settlement requiring a polluter to adopt certain monitoring and enforcement mechanisms — but environmental groups hope that it’s a turning point.
“This is the most comprehensive compliance advisory I’ve seen sent to Suncor,” says Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program at environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “It’s the biggest in terms of the diversity of the issues, and the severity of the issues. It’s not usual that you see the state go after a polluter in such a full-throated manner.”
The letter, based on a site inspection and review of refinery records conducted by CDPHE regulators in May 2019, outlines 114 specific alleged violations of state and federal law. The compliance issues identified include faulty and improperly maintained equipment, a failure to conduct leak detection and repair monitoring, inadequate record keeping, and excessive emissions of hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide from various refining units.
The compliance advisory, dated December 13 — just two days after the catalyst incident — set a thirty-day deadline for Suncor officials to meet with state regulators and “establish a mutually acceptable schedule and guidelines for the full and final resolution” of the outlined compliance issues.
In response to questions from Westword, Suncor confirmed that it had received the notice. “We are working with CDPHE through its processes to resolve the Compliance Advisory,” its statement read.
Following repairs, inspections and the installation of “additional instrumentation” to the FCC unit, the refinery resumed full operation on January 8. “We continue to meet and talk with members of the community, regulatory agencies, government officials and others to provide updates and answer related questions,” Suncor said.
Lawmakers at the State Capitol are among those pushing CDPHE to take a more aggressive approach. “We believe that these types of events have become normalized at this facility and effective corrective actions are inconsistent,” read a letter sent to CDPHE director Jill Hunsaker Ryan in December by Senator Dominick Moreno and Representatives Adrienne Benavidez and Alex Valdez.
“Part of it is that CDPHE has told us they don’t have enough staff,” says Benavidez, whose district includes the Suncor plant and much of the rest of Commerce City. “One of the things they’ve told us — they have one toxicologist compared to 39, I think they said, in Minnesota. They aren’t really staffed to do these things. It’s really hard to determine corrective actions if you don’t have the staff or the expertise to tell them how to correct it.”
Officials with CDPHE’s Air Pollution Control Division declined an interview request. But Andrew Bare, a department spokesman, confirmed in a statement that the division “determined there were a significant number of potential violations at the Commerce City refinery” in both the May 2019 inspection and a previous inspection conducted in 2018.
“We are currently pursuing an enforcement action against Suncor for the 2018 and 2019 inspection findings. This action also includes the December 11 opacity event,” Bare wrote in an email to Westword. “Enforcement actions can result in fines and additional mandates designed to ensure a company’s operations remain in compliance. The ultimate outcome of an enforcement action depends on a number of variables, including the nature of the company’s violations, the company’s response to a notification of violations and the company’s compliance history.”
“The state has submitted compliance advisories to Suncor numerous times over the years, and nothing has changed,” Nichols notes. “But I think it’s a sign that the state is finally realizing that things are dreadfully wrong at this refinery and that there are deeper problems at play.”
Fossil fuels have transformed the modern world in big, obvious ways that all of us recognize, like the conveniences of modern air and car travel, and in ways that most of us never think about — like the global spike in food production attributable to the spread of mechanized agriculture in the twentieth century, or the widespread availability of petrochemical feedstocks used to manufacture every kind of plastic from credit cards to surgical tubes.
None of this happens by magic. At every stage in the world’s fossil-fuel supply chain, there are trade-offs. Drilling for oil is a dirty business, fraught with risks; transporting it, by pipelines or tanker trucks, isn’t any safer. After it ends up in your gas tank, getting combusted so that you can get to work or the grocery store, a toxic mix of chemical byproducts is emitted from your exhaust pipe, helping form smog and slowly warming the planet. The environmental costs are real, even if they’re not always visible.
One of the nastiest of these trade-offs happens after a barrel of oil is pumped out of the ground but before it’s pumped into your gas tank, when crude oil — the heavy, hydrocarbon-rich sludge sold by producers — must undergo a staggeringly complex array of thermal and chemical transformations to be broken down into gasoline, diesel, kerosene, propane and other familiar fuels. In Denver, that happens at the Commerce City refinery, which operated for decades as two separate facilities — one owned by the Continental Oil Company, later known as ConocoPhillips, with the other most recently owned by Texas-based Valero Energy — until Suncor Energy bought both and combined them in 2005.
“It’s a very complicated facility,” says Nichols, whose organization has threatened to sue Suncor over what it says are thousands of “opacity violations” recorded by on-site air-quality monitors. “There’s a lot of room for human error, a lot of room for oversights. There’s just so much going on.”
Modern oil refineries are sprawling, billion-dollar megacomplexes capable of producing hundreds of thousands of barrels of refined fuels per day, and belching out all manner of airborne pollutants. According to Environmental Protection Agency data, the Suncor refinery is Colorado’s second-largest stationary source of volatile organic compounds, a class of contaminants that includes cancer-causing chemicals like benzene. It also ranks as one of the state’s largest emitters of fine-particle pollution, coarse-particle pollution, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen sulfide and more.
And there’s one other thing that tends to be true of American oil refineries: They’re heavily concentrated in low-income areas. In 2016, researchers at the environmental watchdog group FracTracker Alliance collated the locations of all 126 U.S. refineries with income data from nearby census tracts, which they compared to data from the surrounding metropolitan area or region. They found that the vast majority of refineries were located in areas on the low end of the income scale, with residents near refineries earning on average nearly $16,000 less than the average income of the surrounding region.
Out of the 126 refineries analyzed, the single biggest income gap that FracTracker researchers identified was found in the neighborhoods surrounding the Suncor refinery, where residents on average earn roughly $42,000 less than the typical Denver-area resident.
“All of the pollution, all of the issues that they’re facing, it’s not something that you’re going to see in Cherry Creek or in Highlands Ranch,” says Sunni Benoit, president of climate advocacy group 350 Colorado. “Throughout this country, historically, we have put these types of industrial facilities near poorer communities, because generally speaking, they don’t have as much advantage when it comes to reaching their legislators and speaking out.”
Molina, who has testified before state air regulators and who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Commerce City Council in 2019, says that it can be a challenge to organize around clean-air issues in her community. Many of her neighbors have similar health and environmental concerns but struggle to communicate them across a language barrier — or, in some cases, are reluctant to speak up because of their immigration status, or because they’re fearful of blowback from the oil and gas industry.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, no, no, Lucy, don’t get us involved,’” Molina says. “They’ll let me know what’s going on, but they won’t put their name to it.
“We have a lack of resources, a lack of representation,” she adds. “I can’t afford to hire a lawyer. All I have right now is my voice.”
Investigators were never able to determine the exact sequence of events that occurred at the Commerce City refinery, then owned by the Continental Oil Company, in the early morning hours of October 3, 1978. What’s known is that leaking vapors from an over-pressured gasoline production unit came into contact with some kind of ignition source — and that the resulting explosion sent a fireball 500 feet high into the skies above Denver and registered a 3.5 on the Richter scale on some local seismographs. Three people were killed and eleven were injured, with millions of dollars in damages reported to more than forty buildings, some of them miles away.
The fire burned throughout the day, igniting several smaller explosions as firefighters worked to contain the blaze and the plant gradually went up in flames. The Denver Post described a scene full of “chunks of twisted metal the size of car doors, and buildings with their sides and doors ripped off.” Local truckers, who had long worried about safety conditions at the Continental refinery, told Westword in the aftermath of the “feeling of inevitability” surrounding an accident at the plant, and warned that it could happen again.
For environmental activists troubled by Suncor’s presence in Commerce City, the sum of all fears is a repeat of the 1978 explosion. Two major oil refinery explosions occurred in the U.S. in 2019, including a dramatic blast in Philadelphia that resulted in the permanent closure of what had long been the East Coast’s largest refining facility.
That’s just one reason that a growing number of activists believe that the solution isn’t just more regulation or oversight, but to shut down the Suncor facility altogether. As a market- and policy-driven transition to clean energy continues to accelerate in Colorado and around the world, they ask, why does the state need an oil refinery at all? U.N. scientists warned in 2018 that averting the worst impacts of climate change will require achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions roughly by mid-century — a goal that is likely flat-out incompatible with major fossil-fuel infrastructure such as oil refineries.
“Our first step, of course, would be to make sure that the workers and the community have a transition period, to make sure that workers could be re-employed, hopefully in renewable energy,” says Benoit. “But ultimately our goal is closure. Because the refinery is such a gigantic polluter, which is costing probably millions in health care a year, we just don’t see another option, at this point.”
For now, few, if any, state or local officials are willing to call for the outright closure of the Suncor plant. But as a wave of ambitious, youth-led climate activism sweeps across the country and the world, the window of what’s possible may be rapidly shifting. When the City of Denver held its annual climate and sustainability summit in December, organizers invited youth climate activist Thomas Lopez Jr. — who months earlier had helped lead a Climate Strike rally that drew more than 5,000 young people to the State Capitol — to be one of the summit’s keynote speakers. They might not have expected what Lopez used his speech to say about Suncor, one of the summit’s “Silver Sponsors.”
“Make no mistake, Suncor: I am not here to be your friend,” Lopez said. “I’m not here to sit at a mediation table and meet you halfway. That time has long passed. I’m here to tell you that we do not want you in our communities anymore.”
Denver officials defended Suncor’s sponsorship of the summit, saying it was important for all “stakeholders” to be represented; activists called the company’s involvement an attempt at “greenwashing.”
Lucy Molina, too, is critical of some of Suncor’s public-relations efforts in Commerce City. Community members were particularly incensed when, in the days after the December 11 incident, Suncor offered free car washes to residents whose vehicles were coated in catalyst material.
“We’re not asking for favors,” Molina says. “They need to not just put a Suncor Boys and Girls Club here or sponsor a summer festival, which is what they did last year. They partnered up with the city and these nonprofits, and they donated money for a summer fiesta. Dancing and music — none of that’s going to heal me and my kids.”
By the end of the month, Benavidez and other lawmakers hope to introduce a bill that would require facilities like Suncor to create an alert system to notify nearby schools, local governments and residents in the event of an incident like the catalyst release. The bill would also require polluters that emit certain toxic gases — including benzene, hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen cyanide — to monitor those emissions in real time.
“There’s eight to twelve entities around the state, one of them is Suncor, and we want them to start gathering real-time emissions data, at the source and at the fence line, so we know what’s going out into the community,” Benavidez says. “I have met with some of the people in the industry, and they recognize [the need], especially on notification, and why we need better data.”
At the community’s request, CDPHE said in December that it would test samples of the catalyst material released in the opacity event, but lawmakers were told in an early January meeting that results were still a few weeks away. As the agency continues to negotiate with Suncor over the result of its “enforcement action,” residents in Commerce City hope that it could mark a turning point for how regulators treat one of the state’s biggest polluters.
“We want accountability and transparency,” Molina says. “It’s time that they prioritize the community. We’re the ones who make this community. We’re the ones who are left here, breathing this air.”