Editorial: Colorado agency permitting Suncor pollution is derelict in its duty to protect the environment

Suncor Energy’s pollution permits in Colorado for both air and water are outdated and out of touch with modern expectations for environmental protection.

For unknown or perhaps inexplicable reasons, updating the expired permits for the Commerce City refinery has been elusive for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. We can describe the years-long process as a boondoggle, but really it’s a dereliction of duty to protect Coloradans and our land, water and air from pollution.

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency rejected CDPHE’s latest attempt to update a permit, regulating the harmful particles and gasses emitted by Suncor’s Plant 2, which refines oil into fuels like gasoline and jet fuel.

KC Becker, the head of EPA Region 8, said that the EPA is prioritizing air quality for those who live near the Suncor facility in Commerce City and northwest Denver.

“Improving air quality for the underserved communities affected by harmful air emissions from the Suncor refinery is a shared priority for EPA and CDPHE,” Becker said in a news release. “EPA will continue to work with Colorado to secure the refinery’s compliance with laws and regulations and protect the health of nearby residents.”

This is the second time the EPA has rejected a permit proposal for Plant 2. Suncor is operating on a permit from 2006 that is supposed to be updated every five years. CDPHE is behind in its permitting process. In the interim, Suncor has not only been operating under less stringent regulations for emissions of air and water pollutants but has frequently exceeded even the limits of the old permits.

And the permit for Plant 2 is just one of three working its way through the system.

CDPHE is also working on an overdue air permit for both Plant 1 (oil refinery) and Plant 3 (asphalt production) and an overdue permit that regulates the entire facility’s stormwater and discharge into Sand Creek.

Suncor can release volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide into the air every day that passes while these air permits aren’t updated.

And we now know much more about the chemicals Suncor releases into Sand Creek than we did just a few years ago. The EPA proposes a National Primary Drinking Water Regulation to limit the amount of PFAS in drinking water to between one part per trillion and four parts per trillion depending on the PFAS compound being detected.

Suncor emits PFAS into Sand Creek via stormwater runoff and a 12-inch-wide pipe known as Outfall 20 that can pump up to 3.5 million gallons of water daily into the small creek. The creek is a water source for communities downriver and has been flagged for excessive PFAS contamination.

The City of Thornton has been buying water from other sources to dilute out the PFAS in its drinking water, and this permit renewal is an opportunity for CDPHE to shut off one source of PFAS flowing into Sand Creek. Suncor should be required to treat its runoff and discharge waters not to exceed the EPA’s proposed regulations. Thornton pulls water from Sand Creek upstream of Suncor, but the Burlington Ditch that supplies the water to the city also runs by Sand Creek. The draft proposal suggests Suncor line Burlington Ditch to prevent potential contamination.

Yes, we understand it could be expensive for Suncor to build a water treatment process on their grounds and line Burlington Ditch. To their credit, the top executives at Suncor – headquartered in Calgary, Canada – have already temporarily begun treating some water before it flows into Sand Creek.

Suncor pledged to invest $300 million into the refinery before 2023 to make the plant less prone to exceeding pollution permits and other incidents like shutdowns that can cause emissions to increase.

We are not experts in the balancing act CDPHE must strike between protecting our environment and not putting a major supplier of fuel and asphalt out of business. But CDPHE has not helped the situation by refusing to sit down with journalists and openly and honestly answer questions about how they are striking a balance with these permits.

Given the EPA’s rejection of proposed air quality permits, and the new regulations proposed by the EPA for PFAS when it comes to drinking water, CDPHE must tip the scales toward increased regulation and be transparent with the public about the expected costs and tradeoffs associated with that decision.

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