Suncor breakdown emitted hydrogen sulfide; company says levels remained “acceptable”

A boiler breakdown at Suncor Energy’s oil refinery north of Denver on Thursday led to elevated emissions of hydrogen sulfide, a potentially deadly gas, and other pollutants, and an Adams County commissioner is asking Suncor to install a full-time air monitoring system to protect people in surrounding areas.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials who issue Suncor’s operating permits also
expressed concern following the latest equipment failures at the refinery, located along Sand Creek just north of Denver in Commerce City.

Suncor officials said the concentrations of hydrogen sulfide emitted Thursday were “acceptable” and that company crews used portable gas-monitoring devices as part of their emergency response.

Suncor operators of the refinery repeatedly have had problems leading to elevated air and groundwater pollution in north Denver and Commerce City. On Friday, Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio asked in an email to Suncor officials that the company install a “Canary” system that would constantly monitor air pollutants
with readings available to the public as part of the company’s “social license” to operate in Colorado.

“At this point,” O’Dorisio wrote in the request, shared with The Denver Post, “it is reasonable for Suncor to fund the implementation of a fulltime air quality monitoring system in the surrounding areas that is operated by a third-party who makes data available immediately to the public and government regulators. … Such an effort funded by Suncor could go a long way to promote transparency and accountability, as well as build trust in the community.”

Suncor officials did not address O’Dorisio’s request in a response to him.

“We are conducting air monitoring in neighboring communities and will continue to do so until our units are back online,” Suncor spokeswoman Lisha Burnett said in an email to him that was shared with The Post. “The monitoring results indicate that air quality in the neighborhoods surrounding the refinery were within acceptable levels.”

Burnett did not specify what she meant by acceptable.

“Our testing involves taking portable gas detection meters into the community to monitor for concentrations of sulfur dioxide (SO2), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), hydrocarbon vapors, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and oxygen. While conducting this monitoring, we are also looking for odors and visible impacts that could be related to our operations,” the company said in a statement. “We know the incident resulted in exceedances for carbon monoxide, opacity and hydrogen sulfide.”

CDPHE spokesman Andrew Bare sent a statement to The Post late Thursday about the incident: “We are always concerned when there are emissions exceedances at the Suncor refinery. Residents living near the refinery have the same right to clean air as all other Coloradans.

“Our record-setting settlement with Suncor earlier this year contains a number of provisions that we are confident will make the refinery a more compliant facility, and emissions exceedances at the facility are down in 2020 compared to 2019,” the statement continued. “Suncor must do better, and we will continue to exercise strong oversight at the refinery.”

According to CDPHE officials, the boilers that malfunctioned Thursday at the refinery were back up and running, but it was unclear whether Suncor has resumed processing fossil fuels.

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