Colorado Air Pollution Control Division on Tight Timeline as Public Urges Tougher Suncor Permit

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air Pollution Control Division is currently in the process of renewing the two air permits for the Suncor Oil Refinery in Commerce City.

The refinery has long been accused of contaminating the environment by releasing toxic chemicals into the air; in 2021 it reached a $9 million settlement with the state for violations of state and federal air pollution laws.

The first permit, for Plant 2 of the refinery, is now under review by the Environmental Protection Agency for the second time after the EPA rejected the state’s first draft permit. In the meantime, the APCD and the Air Quality Control Commission are working on a first draft of the facility’s permit for Plants 1 and 3.

That work includes three public hearings, two of which were held on July 13, as well as a period during which people could submit written comments that ended July 8.

According to Laura Newman, APCD permit program manager, the proposed permit addresses new regulatory requirements as well as 26 modifications that impact how emissions are calculated, air emissions equipment and fuel standards. The draft also deals with reporting requirements, including a fenceline monitoring system and emergency notification system for neighbors. The permit would require a web-based system that continually shares emissions monitoring data with the public, an annual emissions report in a format that’s easily accessible to the public, and a similar quarterly report.

Continuous monitoring is one area on which all of the stakeholders at the July 13 public hearings could agree, with many commenters advocating for such monitoring.

“Instead of these assumptions about what might be coming out of the stacks, everybody knows what's coming out of the stacks,” said Ian Coghill, senior attorney in the Earthjustice Rocky Mountain Office, which submitted over 100 pages of written comment.

Donald Austin, vice president of the Commerce City refinery, noted that Suncor has invested in improvements to help bring the refinery into compliance: It's installed automatic shutdown systems, reduced the number of crude oil delivery trucks coming to and from the refinery, upgraded controls on three flares, installed mechanisms to better capture waste, and replaced some engines with more modern diesel engines, among other investments.

Austin also said that while it might seem that refinery emissions are increasing, they have actually decreased over the last five-year period for volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter.

“We have recently seen a 44 percent decrease in total permanent exceedances and a 66 percent decrease in duration of the exceedances,” Austin continued. Those numbers represent a lower number of violations of the facility’s current permit and violations of shorter duration.

But according to Coghill, the refinery’s admitted lack of compliance makes many in the community doubt that a new permit would do much, because the refinery could continue to violate the permit as it has in the past.

In a statement, the APCD emphasized that this permit renewal is important because it will increase the division’s enforcement authority: “The permit already contains more stringent requirements for Suncor, including new monitoring, testing, record keeping, and reporting provisions. The Air Division values community input on this permit, and will use your ideas to help hold Suncor accountable.”

However, the proposed permit also calls for an increase in allowed emission limits for nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter, and a slight decrease for sulfur dioxide.

“It is disappointing to see a draft permit that basically allows the facility to pollute even more,” Denver resident Ramesh Bhatt said during one of the July 13 hearings. “It is hard to understand how increasing pollution by 90 tons per year would be protective of a community that's already under enormous pollution stress.”

Many of those who commented called for either a denial of the permit or for the division to implement a much stricter permit than the proposed draft, calling out the division for not protecting the health of people who live around the refinery or the environment.

“This type of governance erodes trust in institutions,” said Emily Swallow. “It makes communities wonder why we even have permit systems and emissions limits if they're not going to be effectively enforced.”

Over the course of the two July 13 meetings, just three people advocated in favor of the proposed permit. Angie Binder, speaking for the Colorado Petroleum Association, Tom Peterson of the Colorado Asphalt Pavement Association, and Dan Haley of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association all said that Suncor is key to their industries and a good local partner.

Earthjustice, among other entities, has suggested that the division combine the two permits into one, to limit confusion.

But when Earthjustice requested that, Coghill said, the division responded that it was on the clock to complete the permits because of a lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians; it would take extra time to combine the permits, and the division doesn't have the time. In January, a federal judge ordered the division to take action on the permit renewals without further delay.

Under state rules, Suncor is required to renew permits every five years. Suncor filed to renew the permit on Plant 2 in 2010 and Plants 1 and 3 in 2016 before they expired. The APCD was supposed to reply within eighteen months but didn’t act on the Plant 2 permit until 2021 and the Plants 1 and 3 permit until 2022.

Division spokesperson Kate Malloy explained that the plants were originally under different ownership, and that’s why there are still two permits.

“Although Suncor has two separate permits, the division evaluates the entirety of the facility when making permitting and regulatory determinations,” Malloy added. “The division is considering combining Suncor’s two Title V permits in the future.”

Earthjustice is pushing for more public comment time for the Plants 1 and 3 permit, as the Plant 2 permit had a longer public comment period. At the second July 13 hearing, Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, said that his organization would support such an extension and not view it as contrary to the judge’s order to act without delay; the judge did not provide a specific timetable in the ruling.

Still, Martha Rudolph, chair of the AQCC, said she was inclined to deny the request for more time.

After taking comments into account (and responding to all of them in writing), the APCD and the AQCC will create a final draft and then submit a permit for Plants 1 and 3 to the EPA. After that, the EPA will have 45 days to respond.

The EPA will make a decision on the Plant 2 permit by August 7.