Air quality monitoring around Suncor Energy’s oil refinery in Commerce City must be stronger than what the company has proposed to better address the community’s concerns about the pollutants the facility belches into the air, state regulators say.
Suncor presented late last year its plan to monitor air quality along the refinery’s 3.4-mile perimeter to comply with state law, but now Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division says that plan is not good enough and it will require the company to do more.
The tougher requirements, which go into effect next year, are the result of a series of public hearings held in the spring at which those who live near the refinery told regulators they wanted more oversight. The division, which oversees Suncor’s air permits and compliance with federal and state laws, agreed.
“We heard from the public they were interested in these changes and we agreed with them,” said Michael Ogletree, Air Pollution Control Division director. “The public was accurate in identifying that Suncor was doing the minimum they could.”
In 2021, the Colorado legislature passed a law that required Suncor and three other industrial facilities that reach a specific threshold for releasing toxins into the air to create monitoring plans around their boundaries. Three other companies — Sinclair Oil and Phillips 66 in Commerce City and Goodrich Carbon in Pueblo — soon will need to start monitoring programs, but Suncor was required to go first.
The refinery just north of Denver is the largest single source of air pollution in Colorado, and public health officials say its location in an urban area leads its pollution to disproportionately affect a low-income, minority population.
Loa Esquilin Garcia, a Suncor spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement that the company is reviewing the state’s plan and she would not be able to speak on it.
The company this year also started its own air monitoring system, deploying a machine inside a van that drives through neighborhoods around the refinery to collect air samples. That program was started after a 2020 settlement between Suncor and the state over years of air pollution violations.
A community organization, Cultivando, also runs an air monitoring program around Suncor.
Colorado law requires companies to monitor for benzene, hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen sulfide, but it also gives the Air Pollution Control Division authority to require Suncor to monitor for more pollutants. The division will do just that, Ogletree said.
State regulators will require Suncor to monitor an additional 11 toxins, including nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylenes and other compounds that are found in oil and gas emissions.
The state also wants Suncor to monitor emissions 24 hours per day in all directions. The company’s plan called for the installation of monitoring systems along the fenceline that would sample air in one direction for five minutes before rotating to collect samples in another direction. But that would only monitor 50% of the facility 50% of the time, Olgetree said.
The company also had excluded its corners on its list of monitoring stations, and the state said systems need to be installed at those points, too.
“Now it will be 100%” coverage, Ogletree said.
The state also wants Suncor to revise its testing for hydrogen sulfide, saying its proposed detection systems wouldn’t find low levels that still would require an emergency notification.
Finally, the state wants Suncor to boost its emergency alerting system so nearby residents and those who work in the area know when a malfunction has caused more toxins to be released. Those who are most affected by the emissions need time to respond, including evacuating if they are in danger, Ogletree said.
Overall, community residents are encouraged by the state’s tougher monitoring requirements, especially the plan to add more toxins to the monitoring list, said Ean Tafoya, state director of GreenLatinos.
“We see that to be really good,” Tafoya said. “It’s way more than the bare minimum.”
The community has been asking for data for years and now that will be provided. But, Tafoya said, people who live near Suncor will know exactly how committed the state is to more closely regulating the refinery when there is some enforcement of the rules. For too long, he said, Suncor has been allowed to exceed emissions amounts allowed under its air permits with few penalties.
“Enforcement is the next big step to see if there’s real environmental justice,” Tafoya said.
Suncor must submit its revised plan to the state by Nov. 1 and must meet the requirements specified in state law by Jan. 1, according to a news release from the Air Pollution Control Division. Deadlines for meeting other requirements are in April and July.
The division plans to hold at least two community meetings this fall to share updates on the monitoring requirements.