Is the Suncor Refinery in Colorado Killing People Quietly With its Deeds?  

Photograph Source: Commerce City

A little background music

In 2019, the state of Colorado surprised everyone by fining the Suncor oil refinery, which does its dirty business a few miles removed from the center of Denver,  $9 million for an endless string of toxic releases exceeding its liberal, government-sanctioned permit to pollute under the federal Clean Air Act.  Properly viewed this is another example of how, under the present neoliberal system of protecting corporate ambition, companies receive government issued indulgences to kill people, if ever so slowly.

After the state was rewarded with banner headlines and atta boys for its tough stance against Suncor’s unreasonably high corporate poisoning, it then gave most of the money back to the Canadian corporation so that it could hire another corporation to tell it why its operations were so filthy.   A few million dollars later its contractor, in one of those corporate amen moments, agreed that indeed their operations were filthy; they could do better.   That the operation is still an Augean mess was revealed for all once again when the refinery closed down production entirely last Christmas season after a series of serious mechanical breakdowns.  Although two workers were seriously injured with burns, the general cause of the highly unusual, refinery-wide shutdown, that lasted until the March 3rd restart, remains unknown, though Suncor promises to reveal all sometime this summer.

That Suncor remains a little world made uncunningly–a never- ending nightmare for those condemned to dance reflexively to the clanking of its operations–was reinforced last week when Suncor’s management announced that it was reclosing one of its two petroleum making operations, only about a month after announcing its reopening.  Suncor promised, as it had in late December when it closed the entire plant, to minimize “any impact on our neighbors” and “the environment.”  Suncor said it would spend $100 million on the latest rehab.   This of course allowed it to promote simultaneously its shabby gift-horse-notice that, as a result of Suncor’s free spending ways, new jobs would be available to do the maintenance work and new economic activity would be created for the area.   They also admitted to the huddled masses that they might see increased flaring, but that it too would be minimized.   Suncor reported $23 billion in gross revenues in 2022.

The way Suncor uses the term “minimized” is worthy of some examination.  It never says how great the disruption, only that it will be minimized.  One could, for example, say that quick emergency response to the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 minimized impacts, but to deny that those impacts were still horrific by any reasonable yardstick is unthinkable.  Similarly, Suncor may minimize its air pollution on the surrounding population, but that doesn’t mean the releases aren’t significant and the impacts aren’t horrific.

Some sense of this proposition gains momentum when we learn that during the so-called winter shutdown of the entire plant, the refinery reported releases of pollutants exceeding its liberal permits 37 times.  That’s pretty close to one event every other day during the shutdown period.  Some might even argue, after reviewing recent independently generated air quality data, some of which will be discussed later, that the annual death toll in the surrounding Suncor population might even approach the death toll of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, which killed 89 people.  The one thing we can say for certain is that these frequent spikes in pollutants were no cause for concern, because Suncor told us so.  That is to say, the refinery’s notices were of a kind: they had things under control, said they, and there was no danger.

Any reasonable person might wonder how either of these claims could be true if the releases exceeded their already liberal permitted limits?  What we can say with certainty is that when Suncor declares a shutdown it means only that it will stop refining product for market.  It clearly does not mean that it won’t be polluting to high heaven while live testing its equipment to get it back on line.

In what is undoubtedly viewed now as a tactical error, the state also set aside several millions of the 2019 fine money for the surrounding communities.  It even set up a community-dominated committee to decide how the money should be spent.

In the past, Suncor’s pollution had always been quieted with the periodic offers of a few trinkets for the poisoned.  But trinket diplomacy wouldn’t do this time.  The people wanted to know what was in their air.  They asked Cultivando, a small, community based, Latina led nonprofit, to find out—admission, I am on the advisory board for Cultivando.  Both the state and Suncor, which had awarded themselves seats on the selection committee, opposed Cultivando’s community based monitoring, but reluctantly reversed themselves when they found they couldn’t hold the day.

Cultivando had enlisted the help of a small core of climate activists and the promise of technical assistance from a Boulder, Colorado, company long involved in efforts to measure the impacts of fracking on air quality in several communities to the north of Denver–towns in the heart of Colorado’s fracking belt, known geologically as the DJ Basin.   Suncor refines oil from this basin, as well as tar sands it moves by pipeline from its mines in Alberta, 1200 miles away.

Lies, damn lies, and green house gasses

So what has been learned?  Plenty, but first a word about what the state thinks Suncor is emitting in terms of greenhouse gasses, since these gasses are increasingly in the news as the relentless destroyer of planetary livability, if not civilization itself.  In fact, the latest federal report, only weeks old, gives the lie to the political happy talk that the mostly voluntary reduction goals implemented cooperatively by the oil industry and government in this country are working, for in 2022 GHGs continued to rise at an “alarming pace.”  The report also contained this show-stopping comparison of GHGs then and now:

The amount…in the atmosphere today is comparable to where it was around 4.3 million years ago…when sea level was about 75 feet higher than today, the average temperature was 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in pre-industrial times and studies indicate…large forests occupied areas of the Arctic that are now tundra.

As for Suncor, it, according to state estimates, which are based in turn on Suncor’s own reporting, releases one million tons of GHGs annually.  That’s roughly equivalent to the annual tailpipe emissions of all 200,000 plus new cars sold in Colorado last year, or equal to GHG emissions required to satisfy the electrical demand of over 17 percent of all the single family dwellings in the state—about 195,000 homes.

Suncor is by far the largest polluter in the Denver Metro area.  Even so, as with most government estimates of GHG emissions nationally, this is probably another serious underestimation and helps to explain why the GHG readings worldwide continues to rise about 2 percent annually, or by about 60 percent since 1990, despite all the official pronouncements of growing success and resolve.

At Suncor, real-time camera work by EarthWorks has captured major releases of VOCs, a form of GHG, from stacks at the refinery, but the state has told EarthWorks, a nonprofit air monitoring organization using gas imaging camera technology, that since Suncor does not have a permit for flaring VOCs from these particular stacks Suncor is not in violation of its operating permit.   This is the kind of wacky reasoning that passes for regulation of the oil industry in Colorado.

This sort of dismissiveness masquerading as rectitude may also explain why the EPA is looking at the state’s regulatory relationship with Suncor from a Title VI, Civil Rights Act and environmental justice perspective.  Discrimination and environmental justice concerns become conjoined, says the DOJ, when minority populations “Suffer disproportionate risks or exposure to environmental hazards, or suffer disproportionately from the effects of past under-enforcement of state or federal health or environmental laws.”

The people in the neighborhoods surrounding Suncor are 75 percent Latinx, and generally of low to moderate income, with 55 percent living below the poverty line.  A 2016 study found, after examining income levels of communities surrounding the country’s 126 refineries, the greatest income disparity nationally occurred for the residents living in the Suncor corridor—“roughly $ 42,000 less than Greater Denver residents.”

The zip code, 80216, which these neighborhoods comprise, has been labeled the most polluted in the nation.  It shall be for the reader to decide if these citizens and many more outside this zip code have been forced to forfeit their civil rights because of state ineptitude and corporate toadying.  The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.

Some larger sense of the general regulatory malaise can be gained by learning that over the past several years EarthWorks has videoed and reported over 280 uncontrolled releases from oil facilities in the state.  These notices have resulted in no fines and seldom any concrete reaction because the state says it cannot act on independently reported incidents, even if captured on a time-stamped video.  It must observe the incident itself, it claims, thus creating yet another regulatory dead end.  If this regulatory framework for oil and gas were to be applied more broadly as legal principle in Colorado, even testimony from eyewitnesses to murder might be dismissed unless a state employee were there to bear witness, too.

The general perverseness of the state’s regulatory framework for oil and gas is reinforced by knowing that last year 136 video-recorded, air pollution infractions were reported to the state by Andrew Klooster, EarthWorks’ man in Colorado.  According to him only 6 of the 136 events resulted in onsite inspections by the state.  This is a mere fraction of the times young kids living in the Suncor corridor must make asthma related visits to hospital emergency rooms each year.  Their rate of visitation has been as high as 40 percent in recent years.  In Colorado, an asthmatic kid in the Suncor neighborhoods apparently has a much greater chance of experiencing serious health complications than does an oil producer of being fined or even restrained from releasing massive amounts of health and climate destroying pollutants.

Asthma is strongly related to the release of GHGs, which, with sunlight, form ozone, which in turn contributes to asthma and other respiratory diseases, as well as heart disease.  In fact, the ozone levels in Colorado are among the worst in the nation.  In a recent American Lung Association evaluation, Denver continued its rise to the bottom, ranking number 6 as the worst city in the country for ozone pollution.  Other Front Range oil and gas impacted cities such as Ft Collins and Colorado Springs have made their way into the top 20 on the list of the 226 worst metro areas for ozone pollution in the country.  The state admits that oil and gas pollution is the major source for ozone formation in the state, but its response is at best muddled.

 Jared Polis, governor

Legislation introduced this session, HB 23-1294, which would have forced state regulators to act with dispatch on independent reports of uncontrolled pollution, as well as seriously address the ozone formation crisis, has been gutted at the state capitol.   It’s major provision was that before new drilling permits could be approved modeling to determine their specific and cumulative impact on air quality would have to be done.

The state took care of the provision requiring it to timely investigate independent reports of unauthorized pollution at oil and gas sites, such as that done by EarthWorks, by saying it would cost too much to investigate all claims.  The industry took care of the modeling requirement in the bill by trotting out its ever-ready argument that modeling for pollution, like almost every other effective attempt at reducing public risk and pollution, was just another back door attempt to kill the industry and create joblessness in the state.

Demonstrating once again that no argument is too imbecilic to be advanced by the oil boys, Dan Haley, CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and once the editorial page editor of the Denver Post, argued that ozone formation would actually increase along the Front Range if this bill were passed since people would have to use dirty imported gas rather than the clean kind made right here in Colorado.  Clearly, for the industry the option of actually rejecting a new drilling proposal because of its impact on public health and the environment can never be a legitimate outcome.

Polis stood with the oil boys.  He said he would not sign the bill even if it were passed.  For him, the largest issue in the bill was unquestionably the modeling requirement.  He’s a confirmed free-market capitalist, rigidly opposed to what his type call business suffocating overreach by government regulators.  He prefers partnerships and  “common sense” solutions, which in this case is really nothing more than the argument for commerce and corporate dollars over people.

 Actually, modeling or some form of real-time monitoring of oil facilities is already required, at least conceptually, in SB 19-181.  It requires protection of the public and the environment.  It also requires cumulative impact analysis.  These established “common sense” requirements of law cannot be fulfilled without a scientific database, which modeling provides, nor can they be satisfied without serious, ongoing analyses of the data by health professionals.  The state implemented neither, even after 4 years of its passage.

When 181 was passed in 2019, Governor Polis and the corporate press said it constituted a sea change in the way oil and gas would henceforth be regulated in this state.  The reality is the bill, which clearly states that public health, safety, and the environment must be protected as a condition for continued or new oil and gas development, has effectively been repealed through rulemaking openly defiant of the law’s clearly expressed intent.  The confederacy of dunces Polis assembled to oversee the implementation of 181 has flushed what was heralded as a sea change down the regulatory toilet.

Some people are starting to ask for a formal legislative review of the Polis administration’s implementation of SB 181, since new laws, such as HB 23-1294, being introduced to retrospectively correct what the Polis administration has done to emasculate 181 are themselves neutered in committee.  The chances of this sort of formal public review occurring are not good, for the balance of power within state government is clearly with regulation-averse corporate Democrats and reactionary, government-hating Republicans.  Polis himself reportedly has his eye on a run for president.  A stream of angry and frustrated citizens complaining about planetary collapse and the poisoning of children by the oil industry is not good campaign trail material.

Right now Polis, according to the polls, is quite popular.  Part of his popularity undoubtedly stems from his office’s relentless stream of press releases announcing how great things are in the state and how heroic his efforts have been to keep them that way, while, at the same time, “saving people money.”  He’s developed machinegun rapid messaging around these sound bites.

Press releases relentlessly announce new business expansions or new businesses coming to the state.  No new business announcement is too bizarre and wild-eyed for him to not greet with a brass band.  Recently he announced a space mining company was moving to town.  Called Karman, meaning garden from the Hebrew, its mission ”is to mine near-Earth asteroids to provide abundant, sustainable energy and resources for the space economy.”

Some might think space mining deserves a place on Jonathon Swift’s flying island of Laputa where scientists try to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and others experiment with softening marble so it can be used for pillows, but not our governor.  He apparently has no sense of the absurd.  He is more interested in tooting his own horn that during his administration a clutch of celestial mining jobs were added to our economy.

Recently former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was in town to commemorate with Governor Polis a glittering new direct-air carbon capture facility east of the city.  Billions were made available for this technology in Biden’s Infrastructure and Inflation Reduction Acts.  The facility reportedly can capture one thousand tons of GHGs annually.  The prospect caused the former Speaker, a personal friend of the developer, to enthuse that, “When the story of humanity’s victory over the climate crisis is written, today will be a defining moment.”  Governor Polis, mildly less rapturous, reminded people that this technology could in time help in “reducing historic emissions and reversing some of the environmental injustices of the past.”

Neither let the fact that there were, in fact, no actual GHG reductions spoil the festivities—the event was merely a pass through exercise demonstrating proof of concept, not actual reductions.  Time and corporate knowhow, primed with more public handouts, will undoubtedly correct what were, only yesterday, fairly severe climate saving limitations.

One of Cultivando’s board members remarked that if the government were to insist Suncor reduce its GHG by 50 percent, that would result in real reductions five hundred times greater than the faux direct-air capture project.  What is more, quipped she, it would not only start correcting Polis’s injustices of the past, but those of the present as well.  Is it larding on to add that such a reduction would also come at no cost to the people?  And of course in the present age there is always the question of why we don’t limit or stop pollution rather than trying to recapture it after its already done damage.

A whirr of numbers

With the foregoing providing background material for what passes as oil and gas regulation in Colorado, let us now look specifically at what Cultivando, its friends, and its contractors found regarding air pollution in what is referred to as the Suncor corridor.

First, we learn that soot in the air is the constant companion of people living in this corridor. Scientists refer to soot as particulate matter (PM2.5). These particles are so small that a human hair is 30 times greater in diameter. The particles are absorbed directly into the bloodstream and brain through the lungs. Worldwide, approximately 8 million people die annually from these particles. These 8 million deaths equate to the combined populations of Colorado and New Mexico greeting eternity each and every year.

Cultivano’s monitoring equipment, which was assembled, and maintained by Boulder A.I.R., which, as explained earlier, also does air monitoring for concerned cities and counties across the northern Front Range, takes readings at one-to-10-minute intervals so people in the Suncor neighborhoods can be warned in real time of when their air is unhealthy. The state’s monitoring programs do not have this capability. Boulder A.I.R.’s monitoring regimen disclosed that the federal 24-hour PM2.5 regulatory average of 35 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) was exceeded about 14,820 times over the past six months, which includes two months when production at the refinery was supposedly shut down to repair equipment failures that injured two workers.

The highest swing above the 24-hour regulatory threshold was a single spike to 1700 ug/m3. Many peak readings were in the 250 to 600 ug/m3 range. The health professionals employed by Cultivando think this is significant health information requiring intervention. Indeed, if the pollution had been stones rather than microscopic particles invading the lungs and brain, residents would have been pelted to death had they dared to venture outdoors.

There is also a new federal proposed annual regulatory standard for PM 2.5 of 9 to 10 ug/m3. Cultivando’s averaged data exceeds this threshold. If the World Health Organization’s more stringent threshold of 5 ug/m3 were applied, the regulatory average would be exceeded twice over. As alarming as these revelations are, they don’t fully expose the enduring assault on these residents’ lives, for most of the people in these neighborhoods don’t live there for a day, or even a year. Many live there for their entire lives, with their children deprived of choice altogether. Therein lies the rub.

It may be helpful in judging whether the Suncor residents “Suffer disproportionate risks “ to know that at Boulder A.I.R.’s other 6 monitoring stations along the front range the combined 24 hour federal threshold for all 6 stations was exceeded only 1721 times.  Thus for these six stations, their combined readings are a little less than 1/10th the 14,820 exceedances recorded at the single Suncor monitoring station during the same 6-month period.  From an environmental justice and civil rights perspective it is important to note that these other 6 monitoring stations are in the predominantly white, decidedly middle class communities of Boulder, Broomfield, Eire, and Longmont.

But it gets worse. The poisonous chemical cocktail the people were forced to inhale during this same six-month period includes benzene, with a .9 ppb health threshold exceeded 316 times; hydrogen sulfide, with a 8 ppb threshold exceeded 3,895 times; hydrogen cyanide, with a 2.7 ppb threshold exceeded 24 times; and nitrous oxides, with a 53 ppb threshold exceeded a whopping 65,203 times.  Radioactive particulates, the measurements of which may be a national first for a refinery, also exceeded the health threshold of 1 pc/L 18 times.

Sulfur Dioxide is also one of about 50 chemicals Boulder A.I.R. is measuring for Cultivando.  Huge uncontrolled releases of SO2 had occurred at the refinery in the past.  Releases in 2016 closed down an interstate highway and forced school children to shelter in place.  Suncor estimated it released over 37 tons of SO2 in that event.  Suncor’s permit for SO2 allows it to release 15 pounds per day.  Suncor claimed there was no danger.

Then in 2019 a phalanx of orange clouds from the refinery once again blotted out the sun.  This time the clouds also carried clay-like particles that rained down on the surrounding neighborhoods.  Suncor once again claimed there was no danger, but, as a precaution, warned people to wash their clothes and bath immediately.  Suncor also volunteered to pay for any cars that needed to be washed because of the deluge in orange.  After a polite pause of several months, the state also agreed no dangerous situation had occurred.

Still no big burps of SO2 were recorded during the first 6 months of Cultivando’s Suncor monitoring.  That changed on April 12 when their monitor measured several big spikes, the highest of which was 491 ppb.  The federal CAA standard is 75 ppb, averaged over an hour.  Suncor did not report the incident.  Only Cultivando’s instruments picked them up.

(Note: According to Denver Post reporter Noelle Philliips, Suncor did belatedly admit that “sulfur dioxide emissions likely reached 4,527 parts per million, while its permits say it should not exceed 250 ppm.”  These are almost certainly numbers recalculated by Suncor to match the 12-hour reporting requirement found in its state pollution permit.  Thus, Suncor apparently reported it exceeded its 12-hour SO2 limit 17 times over during this release event.  Allow me to add to the numerological madness by explaining that if Suncor’s limits are converted to the CAA’s standard of ppb per hour, 4,527 ppm must be multiplied by 1000 to allow for the conversion.  Thus for one hour (4.527,000 ppb÷12) the SO2 releases were 377,250 ppb, or 5030 times over the CAA standard of 75 ppb averaged over one hour.  Given the foregoing, can there be any wonder why there is such anguish at the mere mention of making common sense of air quality standards?  It is not unlike I suspect what many feel after having listened to Trump explain his pussy-grabbing contempt for women.)

How Suncor could have missed such large releases has not been explained.  However, the state did issue a health warning that “short exposures to sulfur dioxide…could have exacerbated asthma and made breathing difficult.”

It issued this warning about 12 hours after the fact, and after it had converted Cultivando’s high one minute readings to 5 minute averages, perhaps to dampen the alarm factor.  It claimed it delayed publication so that the warning could first be translated into Spanish.

This event was repeated only days later on April 28th, but this time the release included large doses of hydrogen sulfide as well.  Cultivando, the state, and Suncor all caught these releases.  Suncor modified its patented no-problem declaration somewhat by declaring the risks were not “acute.”  People in the Suncor neighborhoods and beyond are starting to wonder why Suncor is allowed to make public health announcements of any kind.

As for the state, it sent out a rather extensive press release, not waiting this time for a Spanish translator, but still well after the event itself.  It once again focused not on the certain dangers of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide and the array of other pollutants Cultivando has catalogued for the Suncor corridor, but on some mind-numbing notion of chance and uncertainty:

Exposure to air pollutants like sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide can impact your health depending on how much, how long, and how often you are exposed.  These pollutants can also cause difficulty breathing, especially for people with asthma. Hydrogen sulfide may irritate the skin, eyes, and throat and can cause headaches, poor memory, tiredness, and balance problems.

Clearly the people living and working in the Suncor neighborhoods must drink deeply from a toxic cocktail of someone else’s making, and they must do it repeatedly, if not continuously.  All this is done without their consent, and many times without their knowledge.  The use of the verb “can” to muffle the actual risks is disingenuous, if not openly contemptuous.  These pollutants “do” have documented and predictable consequences.

Common sense tells us that just because everyone doesn’t have a same-day reaction doesn’t mean the predicted consequences have been avoided or will not become manifest over time and repeating events.  Similarly, just because only 8 million people die from elevated levels of soot each year does not mean all those living with high soot or particulate levels aren’t affected, and that their lives won’t be shortened or damaged as a result. This reluctance to a simple and honest declaration of air pollution’s dangers may remind some of the decades-long fight in the courts to label cigarette risks honestly.

The state also gave itself considerable credit for Cultivando’s monitoring program in this release, saying it was made “possible thanks to enforcement action we took against Suncor, which we resolved through a historic $9 million settlement in March 2020.”

This too is imprecise in important ways, for as related earlier in this article the state actively opposed funding for Cultivando’s monitoring, capitulating only after it knew it had lost the vote.  The state also fails to mention in this announcement that it returned over half the $9 million in fine money to Suncor so it could figure out how its operations could become less a threat to public health.  Clearly, that generous $5 million handout to a multi-billion-dollar corporation has been wasted.

A little background is needed to explain why Cutlivando asked that particle radioactivity be part of the Suncor monitoring program.  In 2020 Harvard researchers found elevated levels of airborne radioactive waste downstream of fracking sites using data comparison of air borne radioactivity before and after fracking become the dominant drilling practice.   Increased levels with the advent of fracking were sometimes 40 percent over background and were measured as significant as far as 12 miles downwind.

The lead researcher, Petros Koutrakis, from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health said, when questioned, that he, personally, would not live downwind of a fracking operation.  Suncor processes about 98,000 barrels of oil a day, about 80 percent of it from fracking operations to the north and east of Denver.  A 10-mile radius of the Suncor refinery captures a municipal population of over 2 million people.

Cultivando, as a result of its measurements for radioactivity, has learned that Suncor has no allowance for radioactive releases in its present permits.  It is also considering, in consultation with its health experts and others, how to define risks and a recommended course of action.  Complicating the answer to this issue is the reality that these releases penetrate lungs easily, are long lived in the body, and thus concentrate over time with each new contact.  The high levels of soot in the Suncor area probably increase the risks since these radioactive particles, which quickly decay into dangerous, cancer causing Polonium 210 and Lead 210, can be transported long distances as invisible hitchhikers on the equally invisible small particulates.

Cultivando held a press conference at the University of Denver in March to explain its monitoring program and the likely health and social consequences of the many toxic releases on the people. The university’s law school cosponsored the event.  It was standing room only, but the state’s regulatory bodies for oil and gas did not attend.  Neither did the zoom log indicate they listened in electronically.  The same can be said for the governor’s office.  Some of the state’s regulatory absentees have probably caught up with the event because the information is now available on Cultivando’s website.

Tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow

After Cultivando was awarded grant money from the Suncor fine to start evaluating air pollution impacts on the largely Latinx community it serves, and indeed the many communities beyond, it wrote an op-ed piece for the Denver Post to explain its goals.  It explained that it hoped the results from its first-of-a-kind, continuous air monitoring of the refinery would generate a broad public debate on whether Suncor’s social contract to operate should be continued, and if so, under what conditions?

It also explained that it had no intent of allowing its monitoring of the refinery’s pollution to serve as a substitute for real regulation that included as its primary goal protecting the health and safety of the people.  In other words, this was not to become a long-term science project that as a result of its continuing duration became a de facto justification for Suncor’s continued operation.  Instead, it is a proposition dedicated to generating enough information so that the public can participate, armed with incontrovertible information, in a decision on whether Suncor should continue to exist, thus turning the table, at long last, on how oil and gas issues have always been decided in this state.

The absence of even a single state regulator or policy maker at the press conference suggests the goal may be far from realization.

Before Cultivando received fine money in 2021 to begin buying and building the scientific equipment to monitor the refinery, it had discussed internally the possibility of 4 permanent monitoring stations ringing the refinery.  It quickly dropped that consideration because the costs would eat up most of the fine money, and there were at least 14 other proposals seeking funding with this money.  Instead it decided to seek funding for one permanent monitoring station to be located in Commerce City, northeast of the refinery, and a less scientifically equipped mobile station that could be moved from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Early monitoring results and analysis of wind currents in the Suncor area showed that the prevailing winds were out of the north/northeast during the daytime and out of the south/southwest at night.  That is why on a diurnal basis we see that the highest readings at the Commerce City station are generally at night when the winds are carrying pollution from the Suncor corridor northward toward it.  Winds at night also tend to be weaker, thus slowing dispersion of the pollutants.

Cultivando decided after analyzing monitoring results over the first several months that moving the mobile station to a permanent site southwest of the refinery would give it the best comparative results from both the northern and southern directions.  The Denver people living in the neighborhoods south of the refining were demanding it.  As a result, and with the considerable help of Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who lives in the area, Cultivando found a permanent site in Denver.  Despite several attempts, it has thus far been unable to find money to upgrade the Denver station so that it measures all the same important pollutants as the original permanent site, including radioactive pollution.

For the present year, Culitivando has been awarded an environmental justice grant of $500 thousand from EPA to continue operating its station in Commerce City, well over 90 percent of which goes directly to Boulder A.I.R to maintain the site. Because of delays and difficulties in mastering the federal guidelines for grant approval, it is very likely the Commerce City will close down soon and not reopen until the grant money is received.  Similarly, Cultivando has not found funding to keep the Denver site operational, let alone funding to make the station comparable in capability to the Commerce City site.

Conversations with Denver government, a seemingly natural partner, have been unfruitful, marred by waffling and tail chasing.  The campaign to elect a new mayor may have played a role.  That election is nearing.  The finalists, following a primary with over a dozen aspirants, are a school privatizing, rich kid Ivy-Leaguer, a background not dissimilar to Polis’s, and a woman who for 12 years was CEO of the Denver Chamber of Commerce, an organization fiercely supportive of the oil industry.  Predictably, both have said Denver’s dirty air should be cleaned up.  Whether that includes a spotlight on Suncor is unknown.  And remember Polis, when first running for governor, promised repeatedly to regulate the industry.

Cultivando knew from the outset that one monitoring station, or even two, would not capture all releases from the refinery.  There are, after all, 360 points on a compass.  Only sophisticated probes in the refinery’s many emission stacks, of which there are over 30, some of which appear to have no permit at all, would capture what was coming off them.  These would be expensive, as would filters to reduce particulate releases.  Suncor would probably sue, if either were to be required, claiming they were too expensive—economic feasibility is a regulatory limitation in the CAA, and it’s one Colorado regulators have used faithfully to ensure that government regulation never interferes too seriously with the made-to-fail concept of oil industry self-regulation.

The state’s 4 year old oil and gas act, SB 181, disallows any claim of exception, meaning that unlike most federal environmental laws, like the CAA, regulation could not be muffled or undone by tests for cost effectiveness and technological feasibility.  SB 181’s clear declaration, as stated earlier, is that the public and the environment had to be protected as a condition for all oil and gas development.  If the developer can’t satisfy this test the proposal was to be rejected.  Also, as I said earlier, Polis set about repealing this condition by assembling his dunces at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to undo the law through rulemaking.  Had he not, Suncor would be under considerably greater duress today.

That Suncor is already feeling the threat of honest oversight and regulation may be indicated in the fact that it is suing the state for requiring it to do fulltime fence-line monitoring for pollutants and for adding several pollutants to the required monitoring list.  The list was expanded at the suggestion of grass roots groups, including Cultivando.  Suncor is claiming the state doesn’t have the authority to add pollutants, although the legislation clearly says it does.  SB 181, it might be argued, demands it.

Cultivando’s relationship over the past year with the state’s air quality regulatory body, the Air Pollution Control Division, has been rocky at times, but the new division chief, Michael Ogletree, may be trying to change the division’s culture.  The lawsuit brought against it by Suncor suggests as much.  He has said that stack probes at Suncor are coming.  He claims they will be operated by Suncor, but that the raw data will be open access and unfiltered by Suncor.  We’ll see.  Polis made many promises he hasn’t kept, and Ogletree works for him.

That Cultivando caught the original releases of SO2 from the refinery on April 12, when neither the state nor Suncor did, suggests how important the continuation of its independent monitoring is until that day when public demands for reform and transparency become so great that politicians like Jared Polis can no longer hide behind the grovelers they’ve appointed to confound and bury real regulation of an industry that is willing, apparently, to sacrifice everyone’s future for its narrowly-imagined private profits today.

Adding sauce to this assertion is a damming report recently released by Oil Change International and Earthworks.  It records the results of their field evaluation of an industry developed and marketed VOC monitoring device, called a Canary. It is heavily promoted as revolutionary, in that it can make oil operations clean since it measures continuously and thus allows leak stoppage on the spot. It has the added advantage of being relatively cheap to buy and operate.  The working assumption seems to be that almost any guy with a pickup and oil logo on its door panel can operate it.

Operators can even get a certification from the company that their methane is clean, thus increasing the certified product’s market value, for it is climate-destruction neutral goes the story line. Its CEO, Chris Romer, is a former investment banker and Colorado state legislator.  He is also the son of former Democratic governor Roy Romer.  He is fond of saying that the Canary will continue the oil industry’s “social license to operate.”  His license plate proudly advertises the big lie that he is “the last Democrat for fracking.”   Though Canary makes a big to-do about its independence, its board is filled with oil executives.

To test the claims being made for the Canary, Earthworks took its gas imaging cameras to the field.  In 77 spot visits to Canary protected well operations their cameras recorded 22 uncontrolled releases of VOCs. These recordings were generated over no more than 30 hours of camera work.  The Canaries, assumedly working continuously, picked up none of these releases according to state records, giving the Canary a 100 percent error rate.  (Strictly speaking a few sites were not using Canaries, but competitor products.  All use similar black box, non-peer reviewed technology, making a fine distinction in this narrative unnecessary.)

EW’s field-testing results in a leak rate of 29 percent for the 77 operations that were spot sampled over a 6 month-period.  The Canaries, on the other hand, reported a leak rate of less than one percent with continuous monitoring over a period of a year.  Only 11 leaks were reported in a database containing over 177,000 one-hour readings, and only 1 of the 11 events required reporting and action by the operator under its state approved permit.

Suncor uses a perimeter monitoring system, as well, as part of its self-monitoring program.  It is not known whether their devises, that can be seen most commonly on power poles ringing the refinery, are Canaries, but, regardless, the foregoing certainly further erodes the claim, if any were really needed, that self-regulation is a concept that can be relied on to protect the people or the environment.  It clearly protects only the corporation’s bottom line and more importantly, its social license.

End Notes

Cultivando’s most serious disagreement with the state’s air quality regulatory body, the APCD, is over whether the Clean Air Act standards are adequate to protect public health.  Cultivando’s experts, Dr David Brown and Wilma Subra, argue that while air standards are absolutely necessary for the establishment of a broad regulatory framework upon which reporting and enforcement thresholds can be based they are not adequate for judging public health outcomes.

Dr. Brown has said repeatedly that the issues are too complicated for easy assessment and resolution. He is of the firm opinion that “exposures are too complex to be evaluated using only air monitoring, that health conditions need to be monitored in the community itself.” (Dr. Brown is the past Chief of Environmental Epidemiology and Occupational Health in Connecticut; former Associate Professor of Toxicology at Northeastern College of Pharmacy; and former Deputy Director at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) at the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.  Wilma Subra served for many years on EPA’s science advisory boards.  She is internationally recognized for her work with poor communities on air quality issues, particularly as they relate to refineries and plastics factories.  She was recently cited in Counterpunch for her work with Black citizens in what is called Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.)

Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division complains that the continuous monitoring regimen Cultivando has implemented is akin to “snapshots” that blind it “to the larger picture.” Actually, what Cultivando’s done is develop a more refined and data-intensive program that allows it to tell people in real time when their air quality is dangerous. Averaging disguises and dampens the actual highs. Perhaps more importantly, treating each chemical as a standalone, as the state does, avoids recognizing the synergy that is known to take place when these chemicals become mixed in the air. According to Dr. Brown, the science of inhalation toxicology suggests their combined toxicity can be increased by 3 to 20 times.

Cultivando has created a website that warns people when they should curtail strenuous outdoor activity and when children should stay indoors.  Whether condemning people to stay indoors repeatedly, because of poor air quality, satisfies the legal test of civil rights abridgement shall be for the DOJ and EPA to decide, at least in the near term.  That test, once again, is whether Suncor residents, “Suffer disproportionate risks or exposure to environmental hazards, or suffer disproportionately from the effects of past under-enforcement of state or federal health or environmental laws”.  Many will be watching.

Cultivando’s approach recognizes not only the regulatory standards set by the Clean Air Act, but the requirements of Colorado’s SB19-181, which the state executive has simply repealed through seemingly endless and feckless rulemaking to a tune orchestrated by the oil industry.  It may not be a tune orchestrated by an idiot, but, as I’ve tried to document, there certainly are a host of dunces dancing to it.

James Baldwin said that not everything we face can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it’s not faced.  Cultivando, a small Latina led organization, and against all odds, has allowed us to see that which must be changed.  How we react to government’s long neglect of some of the most vulnerable people in our state will be a mark of our character and a test for democracy.  The immutability of the greed heads, nature’s freeloaders, and their smug political enablers support Baldwin’s formulation.  But it should have nothing to do with the rest of us, and our responsibilities to undo the fathomless harm done to our fellows.

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