Ever Disdainful, Colorado’s Suncor Refinery is at It Again, Polluting to High Heaven

Photograph Source: Jeffrey Beall – CC BY 4.0

Did you catch the big Colorado news flash? Denver’s century-old Suncor refinery got fined again–this time a reported $10 million for continuing its poisoning of the people.

The fine, issued by the state, gives the illusion of corrective action, but it is only an illusion.  It will not save one child from developing asthma, or, even worse, developing cancer.  It won’t save one person with heart or lung problems from worsening complications, or dying prematurely.   And it won’t change the air quality for the thousands upon thousands of people who are Suncor’s next-door neighbors and victims.

What this fine truly represents is a form of payola that is ongoing and deeply deceptive.  It works like this.  Suncor pays a $10 million fine, but 80 percent of it is forgiven and returned to Suncor.  So it’s really only a $2.5 million fine.  Why then does the state pat itself on the back for what is basically a headline stealing lie?

The reason, quite frankly, is that it leaves the impression with the casual observer of rectitude and corrective action.  Yet, the fine in no way requires Suncor to straighten up and fly right.  And what is more, why should the lion’s share of the fine, which is really taxpayer money, be returned to Suncor so that it can install a new generator to prevent its frequent cold-weather breakdowns?  Yes, according to the settlement, the state gave the money back to Suncor so it could upgrade its equipment.

Should the public have to pay Suncor’s maintenance and operating costs?  After all, it is the second largest corporation in Canada, with gross revenues in 2022 of  $27 billion.  Clearly, Suncor is not a mom and pop grocery store selling an underage kid a six-pack of Bud.  Mom and pop might get a break if they weren’t habitual underage sellers, but why should Suncor?  It’s a big-time habitual abuser.

If you were to receive a ticket for driving impaired, along with a $600 fine, you would almost certainly have to go to drunk-driving school as well as pay the fine.  Try asking the state to return most of that $600 to offset lost time and expenses required to attend driving class?  Even a Pollyanna might blush at the foolishness of such a request.   Indeed, it’s a certainty that if you continued to drive drunk, and were caught, you’d soon loose your license and go to jail.

Suncor’s record of killing its neighbors, if ever so slowly, is the equivalent of the habitual drunk driver, except in its case it doesn’t go to jail; it’s not the victim of a debilitating disease, unless, of course, you consider greed and disdain diseases rather than pathologies; and most of the tinselly fine money is returned to it’s corporate sock drawer for rainy-day spending.

In fact, just 5 years ago Suncor was fined $9 million, again for poisoning the people.  Here again $5 million of the fine went back to Suncor to hire a consultant to find out why its operations were so filthy.  Events confirm the $5 million was wasted–or may still be in the sock drawer.

We know this because about $1.8 million of that earlier $9 million fine went to a small, community-based Latina citizen group called Cultivando.  Cultivando, with the help of other sympathetic citizens, used the money to continuously monitor the releases of toxins from the refinery.  (Admission, I was on their advisory board.)  What they found was a full-time abuser.  For example, they found that soot, what air-quality people call PM 2.5, exceeded federal regulatory clean air standards all the time.  Spikes in this pollutant were measured as high as 1700 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3.)   In fact, the federal Clean Air Act  (CAA) 24-hour standard for PM 2.5 of 35 ug/m3) was exceeded about 14,820 times over six months of monitoring, including two winter months when the refinery was supposedly shut down for “major” repairs.    PM 2.5 is estimated to annually kill 8 to 9 million worldwide.  It is not overly speculative to conclude a few of those millions live in the Suncor neighborhoods.

A chemical cocktail of other toxins was also recorded during this six-month period.  The following is a pared down list:  benzene, with a .9 parts per billion (ppb) health threshold was exceeded 316 times; hydrogen sulfide, with a 8 ppb threshold was exceeded 3,895 times; hydrogen cyanide, with a 2.7 ppb threshold was exceeded 24 times; and nitrous oxides, with a 53 ppb threshold were 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.

In the past, Suncor has released sun-blotting clouds of sulfur dioxide (SO2).  A release in 2016 caused an interstate highway to be closed down, with local school children told to shelter in place.   This event was repeated in 2019 when orange clouds of SO2 and clay like particles called catalysts rained down on a defenseless population.

Cultivando’s monitoring equipment recorded two similar events in April of 2022.   Suncor failed to report the first of these, as is required of it under its operating permit.  That event may have resulted in the CAA one-hour standard of 75 ppb for SO2 being exceeded roughly 5030 times over.  The event was repeated a couple of weeks later.  Suncor, as is its habit, claimed there was no danger.  The state offered hesitant agreement.  These denials of any danger might lead one to question why any standards should exist if when exceeded no danger to the public results?

More broadly, the state’s regulatory agency, the Air Pollution Control Division (APCD), has given a rather muffled response to the findings in Cultivando’s air monitoring of Suncor.  The state talks often about forcing Suncor to meet the release limits required of it in its pollution permits.  Generally these permits tend to be quite liberal since they are based on what is engineering or economically possible for the polluter rather then on strict health protecting considerations.  In other words, they are corporate first considerations.

The APCD also asserts, despite Suncor’s myriad short-term permit violations, that the refinery remains in compliance with the federal standards as set forth in the Clean Air Act.  These standards cover only 6 pollutants, however, and are based primarily on daily or annual averages.  As a result, the spikes in pollution as measured and recorded by Culitvando’s monitoring are subsumed and become unidentifiable in the process of averaging.

Many other pollutants beside the 6 with standards are, of course, listed as hazardous by EPA, but no firm ambient air-quality standards have been set for them.  Many reasons can be found for the regulatory slovenliness, but the power of the oil industry to frustrate enlarged federal oversight is surely chief among them.

Still, even the claim that Suncor meets the CAA standards, and therefore the state’s hands are effectively tied, is highly questionable.  Cultivando’s monitoring indicate that not only is the 24-hour small particle, PM 2.5, standard exceeded as discussed earlier, but so is the average annual.  The average annual PM 2.5 release as calculated from the citizen monitoring is 14.5 ug/m3.  Thus EPA’s spanking new CAA standard for these small particulates of 9 ug/m3 was exceeded by over 60 percent on average.  Even the old standard of 12 ug/m3 was exceeded by almost 20 percent.

The state has shown no inclination to act on this damning information, even though it accepts the scientific integrity of the monitoring program itself.  Unfortunately, the new standard, which should be even harder to ignore, will not go into effect for at least another 3 years as the polluting industries are given time to adjust.  The people will be asked to endure, once again.  Equally important the 4,500 premature deaths EPA estimates would be canceled out by this rule as well as health benefits of up to $46 billion will have to wait for the Suncors of the world to straighten up an fly right.

By comparison, California’s Bay area regulators are not waiting for the future.  On the heels of a court-settled $20 million fine, it told the East Bay’s massive Chevron refinery that it would also have to reduce its small particulate releases by 80 percent by 2026.  If it doesn’t, it will be subject to annual fines of $17 million, rising to 32 million in 3 years.  The required retrofit may cost $1 billion.

John Cioia, the county supervisor representing Richmond, said of this ruling, “This is one battle, but the war is not over.”   Most Coloradoans would suspect the miracle of midnight religious conversion if a Colorado regulator or the governor, in particular, issued such a straight-forward declaration.  Polis like his predecessor, John Hickenlooper, now a U.S. senator (D), is a hands-off type of guy when it comes to corporate regulation.  Corporate friendship rather than citizen protecting, but friendship threatening, regulation is their mantra.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment for the citizens conducting the Suncor monitoring program is the state’s reluctance to examine the effect massive spikes in various toxins, shown to occur over and over again, has on people over time.  It really comes down to a questions of whether its safer to put your head in an old gas oven for a year with an average low release rate, or to do it many times intermittently over a year on those occasions when release rates are high.    The state’s position is that only if you put your head in the oven for a year is there damage.  Both kill you, so why hide behind a distinction without much meaning in terms of human health?

The state also refuses to look at the multiplying or synergistic impact of people inhaling these toxins in combination.  The Cultivando study indicates that often when one toxin is spiking others toxins are also present at heightened levels in the air. As a for instance, when PM 2.5 is spiking off the page in the Suncor neighborhoods, it is very likely other toxins such as benzene and radioactive particles are also spiking.

The two health professionals, enlisted by Cultivando to help with the health evaluation of the Suncor monitoring results, think that in many cases mixing of toxins in the air people breath has a negative multiplying effect from a human health perspective.  (Both of these professionals, Wilma Subra and Dr. David Brown, have national reputations.)  The state is unwilling to recognize the science of multipliers, even though it appears to be a well-established principle within the field of toxicology.

I asked Dr. Brown recently if he would live in one of the Suncor neighborhoods.  An octogenarian, he is a deliberate man, wise with the wisdom of age, not prone to enthusiasms.  He looked at me for a moment and said, “Well Phil, there is one thing I can tell you, if I had a pregnant daughter I sure as hell wouldn’t let her live there.”

PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. He can be reached at: ptdoe@comcast.net