Suncor Refinery Possibly Spewing More Toxic Gas Than Usual This Week

If you see the Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City "flaring up" over the next few days, relax: It's not going to explode. It might be polluting the air a bit more than usual, though. The plant is undergoing maintenance to comply with Environmental Protection Agency regulations that could cause more flare-ups, a Suncor spokeswoman says.

"There will not be any change to what neighbors see," she wrote in an email. That is, unless "there is a process upset, at which point increased flaring could occur." The maintenance is expected to last through Wednesday.

Denver City Councilman Albus Brooks shared the news on his Facebook page. Though the refinery isn't in his jurisdiction, residents who live in his district know far too well that it is visible from northeast Denver.

"This area of town has a lot of different types of pollution and contamination, and so that's what always alarms me."

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"In the unlikely event of a process upset during the work period, increased flaring with potentially larger flames and smoke could occur from the flare stack. Should such an event occur, we would expect the increased flaring to be for a short duration of time, and it should not be a cause for concern," the statement says. "If the refinery were to experience increased flaring for an extended period of time, we will provide additional updates to our stakeholders on the issue and response."

Brooks says he plans to reach out to Suncor and will report anything his office hears to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which regulates the refinery.

"We're in a tough position because it's not in our city and we don't have jurisdiction," says Brooks, who represents District 9. "This area of town has a lot of different types of pollution and contamination, and so that's what always alarms me. There are young people in the area."

A "flare stack" is a device used in refineries and oil and gas production sites to burn off excess gases. Last year, the Suncor plant emitted hundreds of pounds of toxic gas as a result of a power outage, according to a report by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The EPA's Refinery Sector Rule, which requires the maintenance, will "virtually eliminate smoking flare emissions and upset emission events," the EPA says on its website. It will require refineries to monitor emissions within their facilities and around fence lines. The EPA says it will result in a reduction of 5,200 tons per year of toxic air pollutants and 50,000 tons per year of volatile organic compounds. 
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Paige Yowell joined Westword as a staff writer in 2018. Born and raised in Nebraska, she previously worked as a business reporter for the Omaha World-Herald.
Contact: Paige Yowell