Suncor Is Very Sorry for Raining Chemical Dust on Commerce City

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
The operator of a Commerce City oil refinery says it's not yet ready to reopen one of the facility's refining units following a malfunction that spewed yellow ash over the surrounding area earlier this month — but it's assuring the community that when it does, such an incident won't happen again.

Canadian oil giant Suncor Energy once again apologized for the refinery's "operational upset" in a statement released Friday, December 27, and said that it won't restart the unit in question before it conducts additional safety tests.

"While we had planned to begin start-up of the fluidized catalytic cracker unit (FCC) this week, we’ve made the decision to do additional operability checks in the unit to ensure we have ideal start-up conditions," the company said in its release.

The unit has been shut down since December 11, when a malfunction caused a plume of yellowish material — identified by Suncor as a clay-like substance known as "catalyst" — to drift into the air above the refinery and fall on parts of Commerce City. Two nearby schools were placed on lockdown when staff noticed unusually poor air quality and a layer of dust coating cars and other outdoor surfaces.

In its initial statement on the incident, Suncor said that the emitted catalyst was "classified as non-hazardous," but additional documentation released by the company indicated that the material is rated as a slight health hazard under the National Fire Protection Association Hazard Identification System. Suncor later acknowledged that the airborne catalyst "may have caused short-term discomfort to eyes, and coughing and wheezing," and offered free car washes to impacted residents.

"We sincerely apologize for the release of catalyst from our fluidized catalytic cracker unit on December 11," the company said in a previous news release. "We know this incident created significant concern among our neighbors and the broader community. This incident does not reflect the level of care and concern that we have for the community around us. We know that you expect more from us, and we want you to know that we expect more from ourselves."

The Suncor facility is Colorado's only oil refinery and one of the state's largest stationary sources of air pollution. It has long drawn criticism from environmental activists and residents of surrounding communities, including disproportionately low-income and Latino neighborhoods like Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. The facility reported at least 88 violations of pollution rules to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in the first six months of 2019 alone, according to an analysis by environmental group WildEarth Guardians.

In a letter to state health officials earlier this month, three Denver-area lawmakers — Senator Dominick Moreno and representatives Adrienne Benavidez and Alex Valdez — wrote that "more action is needed" in the wake of the latest Suncor incident.

"We believe that these types of upsets have become normalized at this facility and effective corrective actions are inconsistent," the lawmakers wrote to CDPHE director Jill Hunsaker Ryan. "We believe the communities we serve deserve access to information when these incidents occur. As such, we request CDPHE publicly release investigation reports into this matter, including the Suncor 'root cause' report, which should include recommendations to prevent any reoccurrence."
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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