Commerce City Schools Briefly Placed on Lockout After Suncor Incident

The Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City is one of the largest stationary sources of air pollution in Colorado.
The Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City is one of the largest stationary sources of air pollution in Colorado. WildEarth Guardians / Flickr
Two schools located about a mile north of the Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City were placed on lockout for several hours today, December 11, following an "operational upset" and shutdown of one of the units at the refinery.

Shortly after 1:30 p.m., Commerce City Police Chief Clint Nichols tweeted that Alsup Elementary and Adams City Middle School, two schools located directly adjacent to one another near 72nd Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, "have been placed on a Shelter in Place Alert due to ash covering cars in the area." Earlier today, Adams City Middle School wrote in a message on its Facebook page that the school was in a "lockout due to activity in our neighboring community."

Firefighters from the South Adams County Fire Department responded to the scene. Twenty minutes later, Nichols tweeted that the SACFD "has determined that no hazard exists."

"Ash potentially from an earlier Suncor burn off," the tweet added. Those present at the school reported seeing a yellowish substance coating their cars.

A staff member at Adams City Middle School directed questions to the communications office of the Adams 14 School District, which did not immediately return a request for comment. A spokesperson for the SACFD was also not available for comment.

Suncor Energy, an international oil giant based in Calgary, confirmed that an incident had occurred at its Commerce City facility in a statement posted to its Facebook page this afternoon.

"At about 10:45 a.m. today…the Suncor Commerce City Refinery experienced an operational upset at one of its units resulting in an opacity event," the company said. "As a precautionary measure, we sounded a vapor release alarm and immediately initiated our response plan. The unit is being put into a safe mode."

In an updated statement released later on Wednesday, Suncor confirmed that the surrounding area had been impacted by emissions of a substance called catalyst, which it said had “made its way out into the community” and “may be visible on vehicles, buildings, equipment, etc.”

“Catalyst is a clay-like material that is classified as non-hazardous,” Suncor’s statement said. “Individuals that come into contact with this material should take standard hygiene practices such as washing hands and/or any affected clothing. Additionally, we recommend that any surface observed to be covered in catalyst be washed with water.”

Commerce City and nearby north Denver neighborhoods have long suffered from the effects of industrial pollution. The area, populated predominantly by low-income and Latino residents, is home to several federal Superfund sites and ranks as one of the most polluted zip codes in the country.

Lucy Molina, a Commerce City resident whose daughter attends Adams City Middle School, heard about the lockout on Wednesday afternoon, and didn’t receive any notification about the incident from school officials. She says her children frequently experience health impacts like headaches and nosebleeds.

“As a parent, I’m kind of upset that nobody told me,” Molina says. “We’ve been dealing with this for a long time.”

Suncor says it will offer free car washes to impacted residents impacted by the incident and “continue to work with stakeholders to address issues and concerns.” But Ean Tafoya, an environmental activist and co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum, says that isn’t nearly enough.

“CLF is committed to a full accounting of what occurred today,” Tafoya said. “Car washes do not compensate this community for the continued abuse by this corporation.”

Update, 12/11: This story has been updated with additional statements from Suncor and impacted community members.
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff