Suncor faces lawsuit by environmental groups over repeated air pollution violations – Denver 7 Colorado News

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Suncor Energy’s air pollution violations at its oil refinery in Commerce City will soon be considered in a citizen lawsuit planned by environmental groups.
The groups – Green Latinos, 350 Colorado and Sierra Club – are represented by the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice. They intend for the lawsuit to hold Suncor accountable for alleged repeated violations of the federal Clean Air Act over the last five years. The violations include more than 1,000 emissions of hazardous air pollutants exceeding limits set by state and federal regulations.
“The Clean Air Act allows the most affected people to step in when the governments either can’t or won’t enforce the laws sufficiently,” said Earthworks lawyer Ian Coghill.
When community groups bring a citizen suit like this, they step into the shoes of regulators, Coghill said.
On Wednesday, they started the legal process by sending a “notice of intent to sue” to Suncor, Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The notice “gives 60 days for the state or EPA to decide whether they’re going to file a lawsuit instead,” Coghill said. It can also give Suncor an opportunity to take action to “get a handle on what’s coming out of those stacks,” he said.
After the 60 days are up, the environmental groups can move forward with their lawsuit if neither the state nor federal government steps in.
Nationwide, citizens have started the process of suing under the Clean Air Act nearly 350 times since 2013, and almost 200 lawsuits have moved forward, according to the EPA.
The EPA said it is reviewing the notice of intent to sue. “The agency continues to focus on achieving air quality improvements within the Commerce City/North Denver area through our Clean Air Act authorities, including engaging with the state and the communities disproportionately impacted by pollution,” an EPA spokesperson said. The EPA has previously taken several enforcement and compliance actions regarding the Suncor refinery.
Suncor did not respond to Denver7’s request for comment. Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division said it does not comment on litigation.
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“Suncor is one of the largest polluters in the state,” Coghill said. “They have this very long history of violations, and clearly what the state has been doing isn’t stopping them.”
Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment has taken several enforcement actions against Suncor since 2011. Earlier this year, Suncor agreed to settle a slew of air pollution violations with Colorado regulators. The penalty was Colorado’s biggest ever against a single facility: $2.5 million in fines and $8 million for community projects. Suncor previously paid the state’s previous record settlement of $9 million in 2020, also for air pollution violations. Suncor also settled with the EPA last year over air pollution violations — the fine was $300,000.
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“The point of an enforcement action, like what the state brought, was so that Suncor doesn’t do it again,” Coghill said. “But Suncor consistently does it again.”
Lucy Molina, a community activist with 350 Colorado who lives within a couple of miles of the refinery, said she believes Suncor continues to violate air pollution limits because the state penalties were just a slap on the wrist.
“This is a $40 billion a year entity,” Molina said, so fines in the millions of dollars are “pocket change.”
“If we had stronger enforcement, then perhaps we wouldn’t have some of the issues that we see now,” she said.
Molina grew up in Commerce City and the nearby neighborhoods of Elyria-Swansea in North Denver. Now, she’s raising her children here. She is joining the citizen lawsuit because she believes chronic health issues she and her neighbors have been experiencing for decades are linked to the refinery’s air pollution.
“We have normalized the bloody noses. It’s normal to have migraines. It’s normal to have leukemia, cancer, asthma,” she said.
She hopes this lawsuit will help deter Suncor from continuing to violate air pollution limits, and to urge the refinery to comply with its existing permits and address impacts the community is already experiencing.
If the lawsuit is successful for the environmental groups, Suncor could face civil penalties it would be required to pay out to the U.S. Treasury Department. Unlike most other civil lawsuits, the groups suing aren’t eligible to receive any money directly.
“I believe we need accountability,” Molina said. “Stronger enforcement would force entities like that to step up and to be responsible and good neighbors.”