Colorado Health Department Settles With Suncor Over Refinery Violations

The Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City supplies over a third of the region's gasoline, and spews a nasty cocktail of toxic chemicals into the air north of Denver in the process.
The Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City supplies over a third of the region's gasoline, and spews a nasty cocktail of toxic chemicals into the air north of Denver in the process. Anthony Camera

Colorado air-quality regulators are cracking down on one of Denver's most notorious sources of air pollution.

Under an agreement announced today, March 6, by officials at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Suncor Energy will pay slightly more than $4 million in penalties and spend millions more on upgrades and monitoring requirements to address a series of violations at its Commerce City oil refinery.

"This settlement represents a critical step in our ongoing efforts to improve environmental performance at the Suncor refinery," Garry Kaufman, director of the Air Pollution Control Division, says in a statement. "Our rules and regulations exist for a reason: They protect Coloradans' health and the environment that we all cherish, so compliance is not an option; it's an imperative."

The Suncor refinery is one of Colorado's largest stationary sources of air pollution, emitting a cocktail of toxic chemicals like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds into the air above Denver neighborhoods that are home to predominantly low-income and Latino residents. In December, an "operational upset" at the refinery caused a plume of yellow ash to drift into the surrounding community, causing two nearby schools to be placed on lockdown.

Shortly after that incident, regulators issued a lengthy "compliance advisory" that charged Suncor with a wide range of violations, including faulty and improperly maintained equipment, a failure to conduct leak detection and repair monitoring, inadequate record keeping and exceeding emissions limits. The settlement announced Friday addresses both the violations outlined in the compliance advisory and the December incident, and includes what CDPHE officials say is the largest penalty ever imposed on a single facility.

"The historic nature of the penalty payment in this case reflects how seriously we view these issues and demonstrates our commitment to hold companies accountable to the communities where they operate," Kaufman says. "The underlying message is clear, Suncor needs to do much better, and we believe this settlement puts them on a path towards achieving this."

Suncor will pay roughly $1.5 million in penalties to the State of Colorado and the Environmental Protection Agency, while $2.6 million will be allocated through a community input process to projects that "benefit the environment and public health in the areas impacted by the violations."

The Suncor refinery is also one of the facilities that would face stricter emissions monitoring and reporting requirements under a bill introduced by lawmakers at the State Capitol last month.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff