Community and environmental groups have filed a petition asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to object to the Title V air permit for Suncor’s East Plant in Commerce City. The groups claim that the revised permit put forward by the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division (APCD) continues to violate the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), fails to hold Suncor accountable for its regular violations of its pollution limits, and underestimates the pollution that the refinery pushes into neighboring disproportionately impacted communities. Earthjustice submitted the petition on behalf of the Elyria-Swansea Neighborhood Association, GreenLatinos, Colorado Latino Forum, Cultivando, Sierra Club, and Center for Biological Diversity.
“Suncor continues to pose a major threat to the health and well-being of our children,” said Olga Gonzalez, executive director at Cultivando. “As a community with a majority of people of color and Latinx people, many view Suncor’s constant violations as a clear case of blatant neglect, violence, and environmental racism. Our children also deserve to breathe clean air, to play outside without fear that their health is being compromised.”
The petition argues that Suncor has failed to show it is capable of consistently complying with its emission limits, and requests that Suncor test its actual emissions rather than using generic, unreliable factors to calculate pollutants from the refinery. The groups state that Suncor’s air permit cannot be approved unless APCD shows that new minor modifications will not violate NAAQS. They argue that some of the minor modifications to the permit should have been treated as major, which require more restrictive emission control requirements.
“For generations, the people in our neighborhood have been the collateral damage from noxious, harmful industries because our federal and state regulators refuse to take meaningful action to address their pollution,” said Drew Dutcher, president of the Elyria-Swansea Neighborhood Association. “The Suncor refinery has gotten away with polluting our air and water for far too long. Instead of increasing their monitoring — as they are required to do — they are expanding their pollution and deepening the harm to our communities. The state of Colorado must stand up for residents who want to breathe clean air and not be poisoned by this toxic refinery so close to urban populations. We are sick and tired of the state putting polluting industries before our health. Will our state and national leaders let this abuse continue? Are we going to be the dinosaurs in this struggle?”
The EPA objected to an initial draft permit put forth by APCD in March, but ultimately allowed the permit to go into effect with limited changes. EPA’s initial objection was mostly technical and did not do much to change the situation for residents near Suncor’s refinery. The groups hope that the EPA will require APCD to deny the permit or, at a minimum, require more substantial changes from Suncor before approving the permit.
“The President has instructed the EPA to prioritize environmental justice like never before,” said Ean Thomas Tafoya, Colorado state director with GreenLatinos. “EPA needs to hold the line. These limited permit modifications are not enough to protect the health of the community.”
The groups argue that APCD has failed to hold Suncor accountable for the toxic burden it has placed on North Denver and Commerce City communities, particularly communities of color. The area is one of the most polluted zip codes in the country. Residents have significantly higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and asthma-related emergency room visits than the rest of the city. Suncor recently sued APCD to avoid new fenceline air pollution monitoring requirements that would further protect residents.
“It is unfortunate that convoluted stratagems have been employed in the Title V permit renewal process like pretending that Suncor is made up of two independent entities, that significant modifications are ‘minor’ without any proof, and that Suncor will comply with emission limits,” said Ramesh Bhatt, conservation committee chair for Colorado Sierra Club. “This is going to allow Suncor to continue to pollute vulnerable communities that have been harmed for decades. EPA needs to step in and require CDPHE to either deny the permit or strengthen it to adequately protect people and the environment.”
In addition to the issues raised around the East Plant permit, the groups requested that the East Plant permit be combined with the permit covering the West Plant portion of the refinery. By combining the permits, APCD could comprehensively assess the impacts of the refinery’s pollution on community health.
“For far too long, Suncor has gotten away with the toxic burden it places on residents in North Denver and Commerce City,” said Alexandra Schluntz, associate attorney with Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office. “The approval of the refinery’s East Plant air permit is another example of APCD failing to hold the company accountable for the harm it causes. It is time for the EPA to step in and require meaningful changes to this permit that ensure protections for the community.”
Groups have also called for the strongest possible air quality permit for Suncor’s West Plant. The West Plant permit is currently awaiting approval from APCD before it is sent to EPA for review.