Democrats Advance Bill to Limit Suncor Emissions, Improve Monitoring

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The Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City is one of the largest stationary sources of air pollution in Colorado.

Days after state air-quality regulators announced a major settlement with one of Denver's worst polluters, Colorado's legislative branch is getting in on the action, too.

Lawmakers on the House Energy and Environment Committee voted 7-4 on Monday, March 9, to advance a bill that would establish a series of new restrictions on toxic air emissions, requiring polluters to more closely monitor their facilities and improve their systems for alerting the public in the event of an uncontrolled release or other incident.

While multiple large sources of industrial pollution across the state would be subject to the new regulations, the bill's chief target is Suncor Energy's Commerce City oil refinery, which has experienced several recent incidents that alarmed residents in nearby communities; last week Suncor agreed to pay $4 million in fines to the state health department in connection with a wide range of air-quality violations.

"Commerce City has to be heard," Representative Adrienne Benavidez, a Democrat who represents the north Denver municipality where the Suncor facility is located, said at a press conference at the Capitol on Monday. "They cannot continue to breathe in this air and not know what's in it. These chemicals are killing our people. We need the data. We need to have health standards that will help our people."

House Bill 1265, sponsored by Benavidez and other lawmakers who represent impacted communities in Denver, would direct the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to regulate a new class of pollutants called "air toxics," including benzene and hydrogen cyanide, a highly toxic chemical emitted by the Suncor facility as a byproduct of the refining process.

Because federal regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency have not set a limit for hydrogen cyanide emissions, companies like Suncor effectively set their own emissions limits when applying for state permits, and the Suncor refinery is currently allowed to spew more than 25,000 pounds of the toxic gas — once used as a chemical weapon — into the air above low-income and predominantly Latino neighborhoods in north Denver every year. HB 1265 would close that loophole, directing the state's Air Quality Control Commission to enact a "health-based emission limit" for each of its covered pollutants.

The bill would also require stricter monitoring of emissions at facilities like the Suncor plant, including "fenceline" monitoring to record the levels of pollution being experienced by nearby communities, and establish a state-run alert system to notify residents of potentially hazardous incidents. Lawmakers say that improved data collection  and communication are urgently needed in Commerce City, where two schools were placed on lockdown following a malfunction at the Suncor facility in December, and in other impacted communities, such as the neighborhoods surrounding the Martin Drake Power Plant in Colorado Springs.

"There are many of these toxic polluters across the state of Colorado, and this bill is designed to hold those toxic polluters accountable," said Senator Julie Gonzales, a Democrat from Denver. "It's our job to ensure that directly impacted communities are armed with the resources, knowledge and protections to keep their families safe."

In addition to HB 1265, Democratic lawmakers are also pushing a bill that would triple the maximum penalties that state regulators can impose on polluters who violate air-quality rules. While they hope the agreement that state regulators reached with Suncor will begin to rebuild trust with the community, they say it's not nearly enough.

"I think that that settlement was achieved because of the direct organizing by the community, and also because all of a sudden there's legislation in the works to hold these companies accountable," Gonzales said. "It's a great first step, but legislation is going to be the next step in this process."