Suncor Energy’s refinery operations in Commerce City are of regional concern – for health and safety, for the supply of fuels and asphalt, for problematic greenhouse gas emissions, and for environmental protection.
Yet, the company that owns the plant refuses to be transparent about any of these concerns, instead forcing the public to sleuth and speculate about air pollution, gas shortages, Methane emissions, and contaminating spills.
We understand that Suncor, headquartered in Calgary, is a public company listed on the New York and Toronto stock exchanges and, in theory, only responsible to shareholders.
But the urban setting of Suncor’s facilities on Colorado’s Front Range demands that the company’s leaders not be obtuse to public concern.
On Dec. 21, a malfunction at the plant caused the entire facility to shutter operations. We have learned from the extensive, ongoing investigation by The Denver Post’s Noelle Phillips that when refineries unexpectedly close, a whole host of problems can emerge, including increased pollution and the risk of further damage to the plant.
Suncor sent out an advisory to the public the morning after the shutdown, but that warning did not include vital information, the kind of information that could increase public trust and also increase public safety.
For example, Suncor did not notify residents that the shutdown resulted in increased emissions — above their permitted thresholds — of hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and smoke. The public learned of that pollution event from the state’s Air Pollution Control Division on Dec. 23.
We do not mean to imply that Suncor put anyone in imminent danger from those releases, but those living closest to the plant and suffering long-term exposure to unhealthy air (some live 5 miles downwind of the plant) would be wise to take mitigating measures during pollution events such as keeping windows and doors closed and not exercising outside. The risk from most air pollution is from a cumulative effect, not acute exposure.
Then on Dec. 24, there was a fire at the plant, injuring two employees, and again Suncor sent out a notice to the public about the fire but did not disclose that anyone had been injured. The company has refused to give updates on the conditions of the employees, as though the people of Denver shouldn’t worry about these individuals.
The fire caused the plant to discharge an increased amount of benzene into nearby Sand Creek. Suncor realized the increase in pollution on Jan. 4 when testing indicated benzene levels were above the permitted levels of release – seven and nine micrograms per liter two weeks after the fire. The permit allows five micrograms per liter.
Again, the public only learned of this discharge when Colorado Public Radio’s Sam Brasch reported that downstream users – including some municipal drinking water and irrigation systems – were notified of “potentially impacted water systems.” And again, Suncor refused to answer questions.
We do not think anyone was put in immediate danger by these failures of transparency – the municipal water systems obviously treat the water and are aware Suncor is permitted to discharge benzene into the stream.
However, Suncor must recognize that there is a growing regional interest in seeing this plant operate in a safe, clean, and efficient manner. This incident is one of many in recent years trying the patience of nearby residents. The external picture is of an aging facility suffering from either mismanagement or neglect and a willful disregard for public concern and interest.
Because of ongoing emissions as part of the repair process, this shutdown may not answer the question of what air quality would be like without Suncor, but it might answer the question of what gas, diesel, jet fuel, and asphalt prices are like without Suncor. If the answer is “not too high,” it might be time to start weighing our options.
Sign up for Sound Off to get a weekly roundup of our columns, editorials and more.
To send a letter to the editor about this article, submit online or check out our guidelines for how to submit by email or mail.