Hours before a community meeting to mull the best use of money from Suncor Energy’s $9 million legal settlement for air pollution problems at its oil refinery north of Denver, a boiler inside the refinery failed Thursday, leading to flaring and elevated emissions that prompted an emergency response.
Suncor managers notified Colorado health officials and local leaders that the company was conducting air monitoring to measure pollutants in nearby communities after the event “resulted in flaring and emissions exceedances.”
“As we stabilize and bring the units back online, there may be additional flaring and emissions,” a Suncor bulletin said.
The refinery along Sand Creek in Commerce City has been plagued with pollution problems, and the evening meeting was designed to hear residents’ views on possible environmental improvement projects using a $2.6 million share of the money Suncor paid the state following prior violations of pollution limits.
Suncor’s 80-acre industrial site is one of about 65 refineries in the nation that process more than 100,000 barrels of crude oil a year. The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment sets limits on pollution as part of Suncor’s operating permit. Suncor emits more than 800,000 tons a year of heat-trapping greenhouse gases and other pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, ozone-forming volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides and particulates, according to state records.
The company is required to report problems that lead to elevated pollution, and state air quality regulators for more than seven years have sought penalties for elevated emissions of sulfur dioxide and other toxic gases and repeatedly have ordered Suncor to correct deficiencies.
CDPHE officials on Thursday didn’t immediately respond to Denver Post queries. Suncor’s manager did not respond to an email.
“It is ironic that we have yet another incident on the very day that Commerce City is hosting a virtual meeting on how to use the SEP (supplemental environmental projects) funds from Suncor. … What else can we do?” Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said.
“We need our need our local governments, neighborhoods, state regulators and Suncor to shift from responding to problems to preventing problems,” O’Dorisio said. “The health and safety of our children depends ending this constant cycle of problem-apology-repeat.”
In March, Colorado officials announced the legal settlement to “reset” a pattern of problems at the refinery. For more than a decade, residents in surrounding Denver, Commerce City and unincorporated Adams County neighborhoods have been raising concerns.
A couple weeks after that announcement, an equipment failure at the refinery led to a burst of hydrogen sulfide and other pollution, triggering a company alarm and forcing a partial shutdown.
State officials said at the time said they’d investigate and possibly seek future penalties, and they ordered Suncor to hire a third-party consultant to determine root causes of repeated equipment failures. It was unclear whether that analysis was done and what it concluded.