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Suncor Neighbors Want to Clear the Air About New EPA Rule

Commerce City nurse Darci Martinez is worried about air quality as a result of harmful Suncor oil refinery operations.EXPAND
Commerce City nurse Darci Martinez is worried about air quality as a result of harmful Suncor oil refinery operations.
Darci Martinez
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A week before President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, the Environmental Protection Agency released a new climate rule effectively prohibiting regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from any industry other than power plants — including the Suncor oil refinery just north of Denver. And neighbors of Suncor are crying foul.

The new order, published in the Federal Register on January 13, will make it harder for Biden's administration to regulate oil and gas refineries across the county; it states that any stationary pollution sources that account for under 3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution are “necessarily insignificant without consideration of any other factors.” The rule specifies that such sources don’t qualify for regulation under Section 111(a) of the Clean Air Act. By using a threshold of 3 percent, the EPA “will effectively be covering 43 percent of the U.S. stationary source GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions via regulation of a single source category,” according to the order.

The EPA did recognize that if it set a more stringent threshold (between 1.5 and 2.5 percent), it would be able to regulate an additional 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Even so, the agency noted, “Under this framework, the EPA is basing a decision to apply a threshold of 3 percent on the relative contribution of regulating source categories that contribute significantly to the overall impact of climate change.”

Residents of Commerce City, who live near the Suncor oil refinery by I-270 and Brighton Boulevard, argue that the oil production at this location makes an outsized contribution to the overall impact of climate change. They believe this new federal order has significant implications for their daily lives.

The Suncor Refinery processes about 9,800 barrels of oil daily and a third of the gasoline used by Colorado drivers, but has frequently been criticized for its environmental effects on the surrounding community. On December 11, 2019, for example, plumes of a clay-like ash substance spewed into surrounding neighborhoods, during what the company called an “operational upset.” As a result, Suncor paid a $9 million settlement for federal and state air pollution violations.

Suncor is located by a poor residential neighborhood in north Denver.
Suncor is located by a poor residential neighborhood in north Denver.
Anthony Camera

Colorado's air was impacted by wildfires in 2020, and Suncor scaled back operations from April until the end of August as a result, according to a spokesperson.

But not enough, say some residents. Darci Martinez lives just five miles from the refinery; she's a family nurse practitioner who's worked with adult care, pediatrics and military nursing. In August, at the height of Colorado's fire season, the air in the area was particularly bad, she says.

“Suncor kept going, throwing pollutants into the air," Martinez recalls. "I kept asking myself why they couldn’t shut down for one or two days."

Her 66-year-old mother, who has asthma, went to pick up Martinez's ten-year-old daughter at an outdoor violin lesson at a nearby park. The air was orange and cloudy, and her mother couldn’t even get out of the car without her chest tightening, Martinez remembers; she suffered a heart attack that night. Future outdoor violin lessons were canceled.

This summer, Martinez was a temporary nurse at Community Leadership Academy in Commerce City, less than a mile from the refinery. In planning for the upcoming school year, the Department of Education recommended ventilation in the building to reduce the spread of COVID-19. A local HVAC company, however, determined that increased ventilation was unsafe because of the high amount of volatile organic compounds in the air.

As a front-line nurse with a deep knowledge of COVID-19 cases, Martinez points to the intersection between high pollution rates and the virus. Many members of the community have high asthma rates, she says; when an asthma attack begins, the patient will start their nebulizer to get the medication in their lungs.

“What is not being told to patients,” she continues, “is that when you use a nebulizer, it aerosolizes the air, and if you have COVID, it aerosolizes the virus. It’s like putting the virus on turbo.” Many households in the area are multi-generational, she explains, and when the nebulizer throws COVID into the air at higher rates, other members of the family are much more likely to contract it. To stop increased rates of spread, medical providers are now recommending other treatments for asthma for patients who live around the plant. 

Martinez joined with a group of nurses who wrote a letter to President-elect Joe Biden's transition team on January 12, calling for a pause to oil and gas leasing on federal public land; the letter was inspired by a report on the correlation between oil and gas pollutants and COVID health outcomes.

After the recent EPA order, Martinez says, anything to decrease emissions would feel like a step in the right direction.

“As a resident, I want Suncor to take more responsibility for us being in a pandemic," she says. "They should try to be a better community partner and help us get through this struggle. And as a nurse, I see that this is harming people. Rates of asthma are higher than ever; people are hurting. Something needs to change."

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