Environmental groups to sue Suncor over repeated air pollution violations, saying Colorado has failed to regulate refinery – The Denver Post

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Three environmental groups plan to sue Suncor Energy because its Commerce City refinery has violated the conditions of the company’s federal air-pollution permits more than 1,000 times over the past five years, and they say governmental attempts to regulate the refinery are failing.
“At the end of the day, it’s about accountability. It’s about enforcement,” said Lucy Molina, a community activist who lives near the Suncor refinery and works with 350 Colorado, one of the groups that is preparing to sue. “We want clean air.”
Earthjustice filed a notice of intent to sue Wednesday morning with Suncor, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, is representing GreenLatinos, 350 Colorado and the Sierra Club.
The environmental groups are required to give notice of their intention to sue under the federal Clean Air Act, and there is a 60-day waiting period before they can file the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Colorado. The EPA or the state health department could decide to step in and file a lawsuit of their own, which would override the environmentalists’ efforts, said Ian Coghill, a senior attorney with Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain office.
An EPA spokesman said the agency is reviewing the notice, while a representative of the state health department said the agency does not comment on litigation. Suncor did not respond to an email seeking comment from The Denver Post.
The environmental groups studied five years of data and reports on Suncor’s air emissions filed with the state. They found the company repeatedly exceeds the levels of emissions allowed for hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter, according to the groups’ notice of intent.
All of those pollutants contribute to climate change and also can harm human health, especially for children and people who suffer from asthma and other lung diseases.
The Commerce City refinery processes about 98,000 barrels of crude oil daily to make gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and asphalt. It has two federal air permits, issued under the guidelines of the Clean Air Act, that dictate how much pollution the facility is allowed to release at any given time.
The refinery is under increasing scrutiny and criticism for the pollution it creates in a region that is in severe violation of national air quality standards and in a neighborhood that bears the burden of environmental pollution in metro Denver.
“We have a responsibility for the climate and environmental justice,” said Margaret Kran-Annexstein, with the Sierra Club’s Colorado chapter. “We felt it was really important to join with others and stand up for the communities that have been impacted.”
In February, the state health department announced a $10.5 million settlement with Suncor — the largest in state history — for repeated air permit violations between July 2019 and June 2021. Under the agreement, Suncor paid $2.5 million to the state and agreed to spend $8 million to repair its power supply system, which state regulators believe caused multiple violations.
In September, the EPA signed a consent agreement with Suncor after the refinery sold dirty fuel to Colorado gas stations. Suncor paid a $160,000 penalty for the violations, plus an additional $600,000 to fund a program to buy electric lawn equipment for local governments, schools and residents in Commerce City and north Denver.
In 2020, the company and the state reached a $9 million settlement over violations that occurred during the previous three years.
The Canadian company remains under investigation for a December 2022 shutdown that released excessive amounts of pollutants into the air and for a string of exceedances in December and January. Under the Clean Air Act, a judge could impose a maximum fine of $121,000 per day per violation.
But environmentalists say none of those penalties were big enough to serve as a deterrent to Suncor and the refinery continues to violate the conditions of its air-pollution permits regularly.
“Clearly what the state is doing isn’t stopping those exceedances,” Coghill said. “The goal of enforcement — whether it’s by the state or by us — is to make sure Suncor actually complies with its permit.”
Meanwhile, Suncor continues to operate on expired air-pollution permits.
The EPA twice rejected the state health department’s new permit for Suncor’s Plant 2 last year after environmentalists and Commerce City residents complained that it did not do enough to protect air quality. That permit remains under review by the EPA.
The state health department announced last week that it has submitted a final draft of a new permit for Suncor’s Plants 1 and 3 to the EPA for approval.
Both permits are long expired because it has taken the state years to draft new ones. Suncor is allowed to operate under its old permits until the new ones are finalized.
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