Suncor’s Commerce City refinery reported more than a dozen pollutant-spewing malfunctions since December

Suncor Energy’s oil refinery in Commerce City has reported 13 malfunctions since Dec. 1, sending excessive amounts of harmful pollutants into the air as the company provided little public information as to whether or not people’s health was at risk.

The malfunctions caused Suncor to release more pollutants than the company is allowed under its two federal air pollution permits, and on at least two occasions those excessive releases lasted for days. In one incident on Jan. 13, the amount of hydrogen sulfide expelled from the refinery was more than 169 times higher than what is permitted.

The malfunctions come a year after the aging Commerce City facility was forced to close for nearly three months after a deep freeze caused its refining system to collapse. The refinery also exceeded the levels of pollution it was allowed to release during that incident, which remains under investigation by state regulators.

While Suncor and state air regulators have released little information to the public about the recent malfunctions at the refinery, the company has filed multiple reports about the incidents with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air Pollution Control Division.

Kate Malloy, an Air Pollution Control Division spokeswoman, said the agency has requested more information about the malfunctions and asked for status updates from the refinery. A detailed investigation, which could include corrective action, will be a part of the division’s annual inspection this year.

At least five of the recent reports stem from a Dec. 15 power supply issue at the refinery that affected all three of the facility’s processing plants. The cause of the outage remains unknown, Malloy said, and will be part of the state’s investigation.

The Dec. 15 outage occurred at 11:45 p.m. and caused malfunctions within major parts of the refinery, including boilers; fuel gas combustion devices that burn off sulfur; the main plant flare, which burns off gases that are a byproduct of the refining process; and a fluid catalytic cracking unit, which is the machinery that breaks down crude oil so it can be turned into gasoline and other fuels, according to a report Suncor filed on Dec. 18.

Beginning on the night of Dec. 15, Suncor exceeded the levels of carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and opacity — soot, smoke and other particulates — that are allowed under its two federal air permits. The report does not specify how long the toxic material was being released.

Leithan Slade, a Suncor spokesman, said the power outage was brief and refinery workers immediately responded. No one was injured, and the plant’s air monitoring systems did not detect levels beyond health guidelines set by state and federal public health agencies.

More information on the malfunction will be a part of Suncor’s monthly report, Slade said.

Ian Coghill, a senior attorney with Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office, said the public is “largely in the dark” about the recent malfunctions and the pollution that has been released.

The state requires Suncor to file a report every time the refinery surpasses the legal amounts of toxic material it releases, but the details are vague and those who read the reports must be familiar with technical terms for refinery operations and air quality standards.

“It’s the classic ‘mistakes have been made’ vague language,” Coghill said of the Dec. 15 malfunction. “There’s no indication of what caused that, but it seemed to have caused cascading problems.”

Suncor reported more permit violations related to the power supply issue on Dec. 19, 20, 21 and 22 after the refinery shut down its equipment and then brought it back online, the reports show.

During those restarts, Suncor released excessive amounts of hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide and its opacity levels were too high. Four of the five reports do not explain how long the pollutants were belched into the sky.

Only one report indicated how long the malfunction lasted — from midnight Dec. 22 until 10 p.m. Dec. 23. During those 22 hours, Suncor violated its emissions standards for hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, the report said.

A Dec. 18 report shows one piece of machinery released 1,966 parts per million by volume of hydrogen sulfide, which is nearly eight times higher than the amount allowed in the permit. That same report also shows the amount of carbon monoxide released into the atmosphere was more than double the permitted level.

Hydrogen sulfide smells like eggs and can cause respiratory and eye irritation, headaches and dizziness. Sulfur dioxide makes breathing difficult and also is harmful to trees and other plants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Two more reports on file with the Air Pollution Control Division show Suncor again released hydrogen sulfide beyond its permissible limits for 26 hours on Dec. 27 and 28 after it restarted its West Plant. The report does not say whether the restart was connected to the Dec. 15 power outage so it is unclear whether the two are related. Those reports say an investigation is ongoing.

Suncor experienced another significant malfunction on the morning of Jan. 13 when sub-zero temperatures arrived along the Front Range.

Slade, the Suncor spokesman, said that malfunction was caused by the extreme cold weather, but that extensive winterization efforts undertaken after the December 2022 deep freeze prevented this year’s cold from causing as much damage.

Once again, Suncor’s monitoring systems did not show pollution levels high enough to exceed federal and state health guidelines, Slade said.

Still, a unit that is supposed to burn off excess sulfur malfunctioned and blasted huge amounts of hydrogen sulfide into the air.

That unit exceeded two emissions standards for hydrogen sulfide, according to a report on the Jan. 13 freeze:

It released 2,650 pounds per hour, which is 169 times the permitted amount of 15.68 pounds per hour.
It released 18,769 parts per million by volume on a 12-hour rolling average, which is 75 times the allowable amount of 250 parts per million by volume on a 12-hour rolling average.

Finally, Suncor exceeded the permissible amount of hydrogen sulfide again on Jan. 19 as workers prepared for planned maintenance. Too much sulfur had built up in two units, forcing the plant to release the compound through its main flare. That incident lasted three hours, beginning at 3 a.m.

Every report filed with state health officials in December and January includes footnotes that say the refinery’s workers took “all possible steps to minimize the impact of excess emissions on ambient air quality.” And they all note that the excess emissions were not part of a recurring pattern that would indicate poor design, operation or maintenance at the facility.

Coghill, the Earthjustice lawyer, said it is frustrating for environmentalists and people who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the refinery to receive so little information.

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“Here’s something that went on for days and multiple units pumped out stuff way above the levels they should,” he said.

Suncor created an emergency notification system to alert nearby residents when there is an incident at the refinery. The company issued an alert at 5 a.m. Dec. 16 after the power supply issue, but it only said residents should expect to see increased flaring and that there were no injuries.

The company did not send a notification after the Jan. 13 deep freeze that created problems.

Lucy Molina, who lives within walking distance of Suncor and who works as a community environmental activist, said the recent malfunctions were just more of the same old business at the refinery.

Molina subscribes to those notifications but said they are vague and inconsistent. And they always tell residents there’s no need to take immediate action, although she is convinced Suncor’s pollution causes her headaches and her children’s stomachaches and nosebleeds.

“It’s always, ‘Oh, don’t worry. We just farted,’” she said. “It doesn’t say, ‘We just blew out this really toxic stuff that’s going inside your house.’

“We need accountability.”

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