Environment

Suncor Gets Permit Renewal, Strengthened Fenceline Monitoring Program

The Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City will likely have both its Title V permits renewed soon.
The Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City will likely have both its Title V permits renewed soon. WildEarth Guardians / Flickr
Although the Environmental Protection Agency objected to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment draft for Suncor Oil Refinery’s Plant 2 permit in March, the EPA now says it will not object to the revised permit, which will be effective September 1.

Suncor filed to renew the permit on Plant 2 in 2010 and its other Title V permit for Plants 1 and 3 in 2016. The CDPHE's Air Pollution Control Division 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.

A lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians, an organization focused on protecting wildlife and health in the western United States, resulted in a court order compelling the state to act on the permits without delay.

“We're pleased to see the state moving, we believe, more expeditiously than they would have otherwise,” says Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “They clearly got the message that dragging is no longer acceptable, especially with such a significant source of toxic air pollution like this oil refinery.”

Although the lawsuit was successful in helping get the process moving, Nichols notes that advocates that have concerns.  “I hesitate to say that the state got the job done completely right,” he says. “There's still a lot of concessions that they made to Suncor.”

To that end, his organization plans to petition the EPA to take up the permit for review again, focusing on whether Suncor can actually operate in compliance with the permit — something it has struggled with over the years. The deadline to file such petitions is October 11.

In the meantime, the APCD is still reviewing the Plant 1 and 3 permit, responding to the latest round of public comment before submitting it to the EPA for review. It also announced that it would demand changes to Suncor’s fenceline monitoring plan, which the facility is required to implement after a 2021 state law ordered facilities that emit a certain amount of hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide or benzene to conduct real-time fenceline monitoring.

Michael Ogletree, director of the APCD, says that it’s requiring the changes in large part because of what it heard from the community.

The changes include continuous monitoring of the entire facility, rather than a proposed 50 percent of the facility 50 percent of the time; requiring monitoring of eleven additional pollutants in addition to the three required by the Colorado Legislature; and a two-tiered system for alerting the community when health thresholds are exceeded.

The refinery will immediately alert the community if levels of hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide or benzene exceed EPA thresholds for dangerous acute exposure. Those alerts will function like Amber Alerts and go out to everyone regardless of personal opt-in status.

Alerts for the other eleven compounds will be available on an opt-in basis.

“Since I started, I have taken a more proactive approach to engaging with community on these issues,” says Ogletree, who was tapped as director in November 2021. "Now we're kind of doing that in a more intentional and specific way. I think one of the things I really want to highlight is the direct line from community input to changes in the plan.”

Nichols hopes those efforts will translate to other ways that state could help the community stand up to Suncor.

“It was encouraging just to see the state pushing back on Suncor and pushing back against this notion that the bare minimum is okay,” he says. “That's refreshing. It's not enough to just do the bare minimum. It's got to be about what's needed for the community.”
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire