The Way Things are in Colorado, and the Latino Led Effort to Change Them

I bet you don’t know how much the Empire State Building weighs? Well, I’ll tell you. It weighs 365,000 tons. This is top-shelf, barstool knowledge. Store it away for when the bars reopen, if they ever do.

More usefully, the tonnage of pollution from the Suncor refinery raining down on the citizens of the Denver metro area each and every year is more than two and one-half times greater than the static weight of the Empire State Building. It doesn’t come down as bricks, and mortar, and steel, but it is deadly. The massive pollution spewing from the stacks of the refinery in northeast Denver mixes with the air we breath as gasses, many of which are poisonous, and as particulates, small particles that irritate and lodge in the lungs and can lead to heart and lung disease.

Greenhouse Gasses

The refinery’s largest releases are heat trapping greenhouses gasses, GHG. State sanctioned to release 800,000 tons of GHGs, Suncor self-reported releasing “886,000 tons in 2019.  This is roughly equal to the GHGs released by all 188,000 new cars bought in the state in 2019. Because GHGs are the driver of climate catastrophe, the state passed a law 2019 requiring a reduction of GHGs of 26 percent by 2025, 50 percent by 2030, etc. Latest estimates show the state is on track for an embarrassing 2 to 3 percent reduction by 2025. Stern faced calls for more law and order are rife after Trump’s mob exposed themselves on Capitol Hill recently.

So, do we arrest the major GHG lawbreakers in Colorado? Do we include government incompetents? How high do we go?

The Parade of Chemicals

Hydrogen Cyanide

The laundry list of dangerous chemicals released by the refinery is encyclopedic and frightening, giving the lie to the tag line, better living through chemistry. For example, Suncor reported releasing about 9 tons of hydrogen cyanide in 2015. Breathing small amounts of this chemical causes headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea and vomiting which is what Suncor neighbors report happens to them regularly.

Hydrogen cyanide was developed as a pesticide. First used in the trenches by the French in WWI, later by the Nazi’s in the extermination camps in WWII, and by the United States in death-row executions, it is now banned as a weapon of war. Suncor has tried repeatedly to have its limits for this chemical increased. Usually, industry requests to pollute more have been met approvingly by an industry-friendly state bureaucracy called the Air Pollution Control Division. Some think it might more appropriately be called the Air Pollution Approval Division. Oddly, the division is to some degree dependent on selling these indulgences to industry to help maintain its operating budget.

Rarely does APCD lower itself to involve the public, but recently when it attempted to raise the hydrogen cyanide limit to 20 tons annually, it met with fierce resistance from people living near the refinery who’ve grown increasingly weary of being poisoned with the blessings of the state. Giving weight to their claims of unfathomable indifference, the APCD has admitted it decision to increase the hydrogen cyanide allowance was not a public health decision. This admission is a bald affront to a 2019 state law that requires all oil and gas industry operations meet the test of protecting public health and the environment as a condition for their operation.  The refinery also released a self-reported 12. 6 tons of hydrogen sulfide in 2019. Like hydrogen cyanide, it too was used in WWI as a poison gas to kill men in the trenches–this time by the Brits.

Who do we arrest?


Benzene is another of the poisoned flowers blooming from the stacks at Suncor. The World Health Organization says there is no safe level of benzene exposure. The International Labor Organization, an agency of the UN, adopted a resolution in 1971 severely limiting use of products containing benzene because of its impact on front line workers making those products. Chinese factory workers have asked for a complete ban saying the “use of benzene in the face of longstanding evidence of its harm is blatant murder.  ”The people living around the Suncor refinery are our equivalent of the Chinese front line worker, except in our case Suncor doesn’t even pay their neighbors a 2 or 3 dollars daily wage to be murdered.

The state has a more generous concept of benzene and human safety based in part on the corporate-friendly limits of the Clean Air Act. It states, with only a few exceptions where strict limits have been established, that polluters must reduce their pollution up to what is technologically possible and cost effective. Thus, the state supports a standard of 9 parts per billion, ppb, while admitting at the same time that 9 ppb risks public health. Suncor has been fined several times for exceeding that limit. EPA estimates 2 tons of benzene may come from the refinery every year. Overall the EPA estimates Suncor may be under reporting this class of chemical by a factor of 70.

Sulfur dioxide

Unlike benzene and hydrogen cyanide, sulfur dioxide is visible to the human eye. Most famously it was the cause of the great London smog of 1952 in which 4000 people died during a 4 or 5 day period and as many as 8000 additional people died in the following weeks and months.   Unlike benzene, it does not poison directly, but when concentrated can cause death among those with already compromised respiratory systems.  It can also cause or introduce respiratory diseases such as asthma.

Suncor has been beset with large and alarming releases of this chemical. In October of 2016 a massive orange cloud consisting of sulfur dioxide and other chemicals was released from the refinery. Schools were put on lockdown, an interstate highway was closed, and residents in a two-mile radius of the refinery were warned to stay in place by a reverse-911 call. Releases above 500 pounds are to be reported as a health risk threshold. The refinery admitted later that almost 75,000 pounds were actually released, but held to its story there was no danger. Months later the state agreed.

In 2019 there was a repeat event, this time the orange cloud also contained clay like particles that rained down on the surrounding neighborhoods.   Lockdowns and stay in place orders were again issued. Once again the refinery said there was no danger, though it did warn people to wash their clothes immediately and offered a free wash for cars covered with the clay-like particles.

Then again in 2020 only weeks after Suncor was fined $9 million for its many violations over the last several years, and after the CEO promised they were going to be better neighbors, another orange cloud occurred shutting down part of the refinery for several months.

In 2019, Suncor reported 2,750 violations of their opacity limits, at one point violating them for more than seven days straight. Opacity is a measure of the thickness of air pollution from a smokestack and is monitored as an indicator of harmful emissions being released.

The fact that the refinery’s two plants have been operating on expired permits, one for over a decade, further erodes public confidence. The Denver Post has described this situation, somewhat feebly, as similar to a person driving around town without a valid license for a decade. One hundred thousand “rolling coal,” high-rider, diesel pickups all belching pollutants in unison might be more like it. The state has tried to explain away its baffling incompetence with regard to permitting as an unfortunate loophole in its rules and a lack of “bandwidth. ”But the state writes the rules that created the loophole. Moreover the APCD has enough “bandwidth” to approve thousands of pollution permits annually. Is it asking too much to expect the agency to undo its own world-class bungling?

Who should we prosecute?


The 55 tons of particulates Suncor self-reports as spewing on to its neighbors may not set off immediate alarm bells, but according to health experts writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, soot or fine particle particulate, PM2. 5, “exposure is a major health risk factor in the United States, responsible for 63% of deaths from environmental causes and 3% of deaths from all causes. ”In 2018 there were roughly 2,800,000 deaths in the United States.

Not surprisingly, the poor suffer greatest from particulate air pollution since they are more likely to live and work in or near industrial areas where particulates can be greatest.   According to the NAS report, Latino populations suffer the worst, proportionately, with Black populations second.  Within a three mile radius of the Suncor plant 75 percent of the population is Latino according to the EPA.

A new Harvard study released this month ups the ante even more. It concludes 8. 7 million people died prematurely from fossil fuel fine particulates pollution in 2018. This is a huge increase from previous estimates, amounting to about 1 in 5 premature deaths worldwide being attributable to fine particulate pollution from fossil fuels. Populations in China and India, with their terrible air quality problems fueled by a heavy reliance on coal fired electrical generation, were the most severally effected, but the Suncor neighborhoods, though not a nation, must be considered in the conversation of the most harmed.

EPA calculations suggest particulate releases from the plant could be as high as 1,072 tons, almost 20 times greater than the refinery self-reports it is releasing.

Who should the people of the Suncor neighborhoods turn to for relief? Where are the defenders of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

What next?

As I stated at the outset, the list of poisons from Suncor’s Little Shop of Chemical Horrors just goes on and on.     Unfortunately, we have only partial information on many of the individual toxins being released.

The arc of ignorance is ever widening, for we have even less knowledge of their synergistic effect. We probably never will understand them. But a new statistical study published in the December issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute may give a hint. It relates that people living within 5 to10 miles of an oil refinery in the United States have a much higher risk of developing multiple cancer types than those living more than 20 miles from a refinery.

Much of the Denver metro population resides within these impact markers. About 120,000 people live within a 5-mile radius that includes downtown Denver and most of the city’s major hospitals. Approximately 875,000 people live within a 10-mile radius, including the city’s richest enclaves such as the toney Polo Grounds and Cherry Creek.  The minority, working class population around Suncor may share more cancer risks with the largely white and wealthy crowd living around the Denver Country Club than anyone suspected. That crowd does not include Suncor’s CEO however. He lives approximately 30 miles from the refinery. He makes a reported $12 million annually.

It’s against this horrific background, that the state leveled the $9 million fine against Suncor for it continual violation of its long-expired air pollution permits in late 2019. It wasn’t the first fine, but it certainly was the largest–more on that later. In March of 2020, the state announced it was going to make $2. 6 million of the fine available to local citizen groups for environmental projects that would benefit the community surrounding the refinery.

Several local activists and grassroots organizations—I include myself in this grouping–began discussing how this money might be used to actually measure toxic releases from the refinery on a continuous basis so that at long last the people would actually know what the refinery was doing to them and their family’s health and well being. The oil and gas industry, like the chemical industry, self regulates. As someone’s remarked, self-regulation has about the same relationship to regulation as self-importance does to importance.

Indeed, the severe limitations self-regulation impose on government’s first responsibility– to protect the people–makes a mockery of that foundational responsibility and exposes the extreme bias government, in this corporatist age, has toward protecting corporations over people. But this is certainly not news except to the Rip van Winkles of the world.

Suncor incidentally is a Canadian corporation, the second largest corporation in Canada to be precise. It is the world’s largest tar sands operator. The process relies on massive amounts of fresh water and extreme heating to turn tar, bitumen, into synthetic oil. This effort has been called the largest and most destructive industrial project in human history. Tar sands development in North America is found primarily in the boreal forests of northern Alberta. Liquid waste from all operations in the region are responsible for the creation of ponds holding more than 300 billion gallons of toxic waste, the total size of which are estimated to be greater than the size of Manhattan and Boston combined.   Because the estimated reserves of tar sands are so great and the resulting GHG pollution so massive– 5 times greater than producing a comparable unit of natural crude oil–NASA scientist James Hansen has declared that if the tar sands are developed in full, the “games over” in terms of controlling climate warming.  The government of Alberta estimates tar-sands cleanup costs at about $56 billion. The cleanup would take decades.

So clearly, the Denver refinery is not the Canadian corporation’s lifeblood though the Denver refinery does appear to employee about a quarter of its work force. Roughly 400 people are reportedly employed at the refinery.

Suncor paid Conoco Phillips about $150 million for its refinery in 2003, along with 43 Phillips 66 gas stations. In 2005 it paid $45 million for the adjacent Valero refinery. These two operations along with an asphalt plant make up the Suncor refinery complex. Since acquiring the complex Suncor has spent approximately $400 million retrofitting the plant so that it could process tar sands into oil and gas products. Reportedly, about 15 to 20 percent of the oil and gas production at the refinery comes from tar sands. All of the asphalt is presumably made from imported tar sands for the terms are almost interchangeable. As the crow flies the tar sands of northern Alberta are 1200 miles from the Suncor refinery. Crude oil produced from Colorado’s DJ basin is just up the road a few miles.

It may not be untoward if someone should suggest that there is no way for Suncor, given its business model, to be a good neighbor.

The Citizen Directed Suncor Monitoring Plan

As stated earlier, the citizen’s proposal, known as the Cultivando Proposal for the grassroots organization that will manage the project if it is funded, was developed over the course of the past year after the availability of the $2. 6 million from the Suncor fine was announced in March of 2020. It would cost $1. 7 million. Overall the proposal would constitute the most comprehensive air quality study ever undertaken in the refinery’s 90-year history, including, most importantly, the likely public health and societal impacts of the refinery’s pollution on the people living in the surrounding neighborhoods. It would cost the state nothing. For a moment at least, this proposal would right a world so short on decency and justice, for the costs would be paid out of the polluter’s fine.

Suncor’s health-altering chemical cocktail, which all must drink deeply of, and from which none may decline, will be monitored on a continuous basis using research grade, state-of-the- art equipment. It must and will be built specifically for this effort.  The data gathered will be downloaded and made available to all, including Suncor, in real-time on a project website.

New among the many compounds measured will be radon. Radon, a radioactive substance is the second leading cause of cancer in the United States, accounting for an estimated 15,000 deaths annually. Recent studies out of Harvard have shown radon pollution from fossil fuel development is common. Noncombustible, it gets into the atmosphere easily. Attaching readily to particulate pollution, it breaks down quickly into lead 210 and polonium 210 which emit harmful radiation that easily penetrate human tissue. The radioactivity downwind rose by 40% compared with the background level in the most affected study sites and was measured at 12 miles distance. As some will recall, polonium was used to poison and kill former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

Incredibly, the state has already decided this radon study is not relevant to health outcomes in Colorado.  Cultivando’s Suncor study, if funded, would help determine if the state’s assessment is reckless or reasonable.

Computer modeling of the pollutants coming from the refinery is another unique feature of the proposal. This feature will make possible the production of “heat maps” showing the likely physical reach and direction of the chemicals released from the refinery. These maps will also be available in real-time on the project website. Thus, for the first time the people of Denver will have an accurate picture on any given day of where the individual pollutants from the plant are going and how much of the population they are likely reaching.

Cultivando, which means to cultivate in English, as project manager will act as the community’s on-the-ground educator and sounding board. Secondary monitors in selected community homes and schools will also be maintained by Cultivando, with the information presented on the project’s air-monitoring website. Special emphasis will be given to educating the people of the area, 75 percent of whom are Latino, as to the many health issues poor air quality poses. Social scientist from CSU and DU will do extensive interviewing to measure the social and psychological impacts the refinery is having on the people in the surrounding neighborhoods.  Analysis of the likely short-term health effects of the continuously measured Suncor pollutants will also be available to the public, probably on a separate website developed for that purpose.

A review of groundwater contamination from the refinery is also part of the proposal. Last summer the state reported Suncor was releasing the “forever” chemicals known as PFAS into a nearby stream.  PFAS has been used extensively as a firefighting foam. A cause celebre in Colorado, its use by the military near Ft.  Carsoncaused the nearby city of Fountain’s municipal water supply to be quarantined. It is a known carcinogen, and has contaminated Commerce City’s municipal wells also.  The refinery’s testing of 24 wells in 2018 found concentrations measuring as high as 10,340 parts per trillion. This is 147 times higher than the EPA’s 70 parts per trillion public health limit.

The plant presently has a right to discharge 3,500,000 gallons of treated water into the Platte River drainage daily. Visually, this is equal to the water volume a person might see in a small mountain stream. Fossil fuel refining is a huge water user, and it is especially high for the tar sands Suncor imports from northern Canada. Those discharge permits are up for renewal by the state.

The local activists who helped with the development of this proposal will continue to assist Cultivando as requested. The team of scientists and health experts they have assembled have national and even international reputations.  Some have offered their time for a pittance.

Star Gazing

As Yogi observed, with rare prescience, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. ” Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say that if Cultivando’s proposal were to be dependent on the political establishment for approval, it would have about as much chance as Ralph Nader and Donald Trump taking a long cruise together to discuss the rights of Palestinians. Remember this is a corporate age, and those who aspire to rule have learned their lessons well.

Fortunately, a committee of citizens from the neighborhoods surrounding the Suncor refinery will make the decision. This may not be the slam-dunk it sounds like, however. These are poor neighborhoods with many needs so there will be fierce competition for this money. In the past Suncor has given a few millions now and then to the community as tribute money so as to keep the gild on its claims of being a good neighbor. Some local activists call this trinket diplomacy. Still, the chances are pretty good that the people will see past this deception.

The issue would be a lot less muddled or conflicted if the state had not given back $5 million of the $9 million fine to Suncor so that it could hire an outside consultant to figure out why its operation is killing people, no matter how slowly. Remember Suncor is the second largest corporation in Canada. Does it really need a helping hand from the people in the neighborhood, more than 55 percent of whom live below the poverty line?

Add to this, it’s been estimated that if maximum fines for all of its ceaseless infractions under the federal Clean Air Act were enforced, Suncor could be assessed a fine of $274 million. Now we’re talking about real money and making Suncor an offer it couldn’t refuse, with a little left over for neighborhood beautification.

PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. He can be reached at: