Battle over Suncor oil refinery intensifies as state weighs permit renewal, metro Denver residents demand closure

Metro Denver residents testifying in public hearings demanded closure of the problem-plagued Suncor Energy oil refinery, urging Colorado health officials not to renew the refinery’s outdated operating permits that allow air pollution.

More than 150 people participated in these online hearings Tuesday night and last Saturday morning. A coalition of neighborhood groups, and activists who support a faster shift to clean energy, are targeting Suncor’s 89-year-old refinery — located just north of Denver in Commerce City near the confluence of the South Platte River and Sand Creek — as a toxic relic of the fossil fuel era.

“The record shows Suncor is not capable of complying with its permit no matter how it is written. A scheduled retirement should be implemented immediately,” Kimberly Wagner said Tuesday.

“Do your job,” Emmett Hobley said. “Stop this madness.”

A new permit proposed by the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division would increase the annual tonnage of some pollutants that the refinery legally could emit, while reducing others, state officials said at the hearings, for an overall reduction by 217 tons from the current allowable 866,100 tons a year of heat-trapping and toxic air pollution.

It would raise the limits by 138 tons per year for volatile organic compounds that form ground-level ozone, and 11 tons a year for particulate soot, while reducing sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide — all released in the process of converting crude oil into gasoline, asphalt and aviation fuel.

Colorado health officials haven’t conducted full modeling to determine whether continued refinery pollution would lead to more violations of federal health standards in the air people breathe. Whistleblowers recently exposed state health officials’ short-circuiting of modeling pollution in a complaint to federal authorities.

Suncor’s refinery regularly has polluted at levels above the limits set in its outdated permits.

Between March 27 and April 22, the refinery broke limits 15 times, according to state data reviewed by The Denver Post. The emissions included hydrogen sulfide (at levels nearly double a 162 parts per million limit for flaring waste), carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide (up to 229 pounds an hour above a limit of 15.68 pounds), the data shows.

Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment officials have let the refinery operate using one permit issued in 2006 and another from 2012. These permits are meant to last for five years and serve as contracts governing emissions levels of toxic pollutants that can cause cancer and serious heart, lung and other health problems.

The refinery is one of 250 facilities around Colorado where state officials issue permits allowing air pollution — and 47, like Suncor, are operating on outdated permits, according to state data.

Commerce City Mayor Ben Huseman called this situation “very troubling, to have a facility that has a permit to operate and yet has so many exceedances.” Huseman compared state officials’ treatment of industrial polluters to letting people drive vehicles on Colorado roads with expired licenses.

“If I were pulled over and my driver license was expired and I said, ‘It’s OK because I filed an application to get it renewed,’ would that be OK? Probably not. I’d still end up in court, particularly if I got in an accident and injured somebody,” he said. “After a certain amount of time, the state looks at you if you’ve got too many speeding tickets and they say, ‘We’re going to take your license away.’”

In the case of Suncor, “you would think somebody would look into whether they’ve exceeded their permits too many times,” Huseman said, adding that he’s opposed to any increased pollution.

Commerce City leaders recently directed attorneys to explore a lawsuit against Suncor, a Canadian corporation that processes up to 98,000 barrels a day of crude oil and up to 16,000 barrels of high-sulfur oil sands at the refinery.

The hearings were hosted by the nine-member Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, created to guide the Air Pollution Control Division, where officials will decide whether to renew Suncor’s permit after considering testimony or let the company keep operating on the outdated permit. Suncor also relies on a second outdated permit, governing two processing units at the refinery, that also is up for renewal this year. Refinery operators also face reviews of water pollution permits issued by a separate branch of the health department.

“We take our responsibility seriously,” Suncor vice president Donald Austin told participants at each hearing. Austin said Suncor has spent $300 million to $400 million since 2015 making improvements, installed a new crude oil pipeline into the refinery last year and plans to make “24 compliance modifications.”

At the hearings, many residents testifying before the commissioners said they’ve lost confidence in the state government’s ability to control air pollution, citing the whistleblowers’ revelations last month that managers ordered employees not to measure pollution at some sites as part of a culture of issuing permits at all costs, sacrificing public health and the environment.

Colorado leaders last week directed the attorney general to conduct an independent investigation of how the state handles permits that allow air pollution at smaller industrial facilities such as oil and gas industry sites north of Denver.

Local elected officials from north metro Denver testified and are challenging state oversight.

State health department officials couldn’t cite a case over the past 50 years where the agency has denied a permit for a major industrial polluter. The agency has the power to deny a permit.

“I don’t understand where real accountability exists if an operator knows their permit will always be approved, they are allowed to continue violating their permit, and they can operate after their permit expires,” Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said in an interview. “I give the current leaders at CDPHE credit for finally taking on these issues, but people in my community are skeptical we will see real change.”

State officials told The Post they let companies keep operating on outdated permits under a federally required “application shield” legal provision — indefinitely until the state conducts a review — if a company files renewal request forms as Suncor has done. Among other facilities where this has happened: the coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant in the heart of Colorado Springs, which now is slated for closure.

“Facilities must operate within the limits in the previous permits,” Air Pollution Control Division director Garry Kaufman said in an email.

“We agree that it’s critical for all permits to be processed in a timely way,” Kaufman said, blaming a “backlog” resulting from a “permitting staffing shortage.” Kaufman said that his division “has recently made significant progress on the backlog, processing nearly 100 permits from the height of the backlog.” And he said modeling was done for an unregulated pollutant, hydrogen cyanide, for which Suncor has requested increased limits.

Colorado Front Range residents who testified at the hearings cited health concerns and also a desire to shift faster off fossil fuels to cleaner energy — in line with President Joe Biden’s national priority of addressing climate warming and the escalating impacts such as wildfires, aridity and extreme storms.

Nine counties around metro Denver for a decade have violated federal air quality health standards for ozone pollution, and VOCs make that worse.

“Do not renew the permit until we can be sure air quality is meeting Environmental Protection Agency standards every year,” Mark Glenn, of Boulder, told state air commissioners.

Senior attorney Robert Ukeiley, with the Center for Biological Diversity, testified that, because state health officials didn’t conduct air pollution modeling to determine the likely impact of continued refinery pollution, his team did. And they found that pollution within proposed limits will lead to violation of federal ambient air standards for nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, Ukeiley said.

Suncor refinery operators “cannot be trusted,” retied businessman John Alley said. “They’re doing only as much as you require them to do. … Please deny the permit until the independent investigation of the whistleblower allegations is complete, and then issue a sun-setting permit” requiring closure within five years, he said. “We are talking about human lives.”

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