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'Dangerous to human health': Organization, scientists present research regarding Suncor Refinery air pollution

Cultivando orchestrates air monitoring research related to Suncor Refinery for the past year
'Dangerous to human health:' Organization, scientists present research regarding Suncor Refinery air pollution
Posted at 7:25 PM, Mar 15, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-15 21:25:01-04

Cultivando is a community-based organization focused on health equity and changing policies. For the past year, the group has partnered with a handful of scientists to research air quality related to the communities surrounding the Suncor Refinery in Commerce City.

The group gathered Wednesday to present findings that show emissions from Suncor Refinery are impacting individual's health in a detrimental way.

It's something residents in the area have been saying for decades, and they feel as though their voices have not been heard.

“It wasn't so much that they didn't know they were being poisoned, but to the extent in which they were being poisoned is what was really shocking for everyone," said Olga Gonzalez, executive director of Cultivando. “I had mothers coming to us throughout the years with concerns about their children having nosebleeds and headaches and breathing problems and blaming themselves... It validates what mothers have been sharing. It validates their concerns, and makes them realize that they're not bad mothers, but rather we've had a refinery that is a bad neighbor.”

The research included varying presentations, including one focused on the pollutants and where they are located, another detailing the social and environmental justice impacts, and one that examined the health impacts of poor air quality.

“This refinery isn't a new facility, it has been there for almost a century," said Andrew Klooster, a certified optical gas imaging thermographer who presented on Wednesday. “For so long, people have been experiencing impacts, generations of families have been experiencing health impacts, and there's been very little that has been done to really get to the bottom of those impacts.”

Klooster called it an environmental justice issue, even if air pollution impacts everyone differently.

“What we can say though, definitively, is that proximity matters. And if you live near the facility, you are much more likely to experience any health impacts than if you live further away," said Klooster, who does not believe oil refineries should be so close to densely populated areas. “They don't belong near people. They don't belong near homes. I'm not convinced that there's really enough that we could do to make it safe for humans to live next to a facility like Suncor.”

Denver7 reached out to Suncor Refinery about the presentation, and received the following statement:

Suncor is supportive of all air monitoring efforts, which is why we voluntarily launched a community air monitoring program – Commerce City North Denver (CCND) Air Monitoring – more than a year ago. As part of the program, independent health scientists conduct health risk assessments based on the data collected. Since the CCND Air Monitoring program launched in August 2021, compounds measured in multiple North Denver communities have remained below acute and chronic health protective guideline values routinely used by state and federal public health agencies.

More information about the program, including detailed air quality data analysis reports, are available at [] in English and in Spanish.

We value our relationships with Cultivando and Boulder A.I.R., which operates and maintains Cultivando’s community air monitoring program. We are pleased to have hosted Cultivando and Boulder A.I.R. staff as well as other community leaders at educational sessions to share information about CCND Air Monitoring and receive their feedback. We plan to continue listening to community and sharing information about community air quality; we are committed to doing this work in a data-driven and collaborative way.
Representative, Suncor Refinery

Denver7 looked into previous fines at the refinery, and learned the December 2022 Suncor fire that injured two employees resulted in 38 violations, including air emissions higher than allowed and benzene in the Sand Creek above permitted levels.

Denver7 reached out to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) about the closure of the refinery in late December to see if the state noticed any changes in the air quality in that area at the time. The state said, "During Suncor’s partial shutdown, total emissions decreased and trended downward overall. Since the partial shutdown began in late December 2022, Suncor reported several short-term emissions exceedances to the Air Pollution Control Division through startup/shutdown/malfunction reports; none were above state or federal health guidelines. These included hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and visible emissions exceedances."

CDPHE has identified Commerce City and North Denver as "an area burdened with higher levels of pollution than average." There's an interactive tool where residents can compare Colorado communities, which CDPHE said does show "several census block groups in Commerce City and North Denver’s Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea neighborhoods have Colorado EnviroScreen scores above the 90th percentile for pollution. This means they likely face greater environmental health burdens than 90% of other communities in Colorado."

The state's Commerce City-North Denver specific web page has more information on environmental factors influencing the health of the communities near Suncor Refinery.

“We hope to come together at some point and merge our data and merge our research [with the state], and our resources and our strategies to truly bring about some relief to these communities who are just inundated with toxics on a regular basis," said Gonzalez.

In spring 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) objected to renewing Suncor’s operating permit. It was renewed after the state required stricter air monitoring by the refinery.

In 2020, Suncor Refinery paid $9 million for air pollution violations. CDPHE found more than 100 violations dating back to 2017, including leaks, technical malfunctions and gas levels above emission standards.

The full statement from CDPHE in response to the presentation on Wednesday can be read below:

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment partnered with Cultivando to provide them with funding to do their own independent air monitoring through a Supplemental Environmental Project []. We wanted their participation in monitoring the site and informing the community. We have reviewed Cultivando’s air monitoring data, and acknowledge it as part of a larger school of information that informs what is going on in the community surrounding Suncor.

We use state and federal standards to assess whether there is a public health risk. Cultivando is looking at short-term spikes in benzene and particulate matter that could come from Suncor and other neighboring sources of pollution. While these spikes are important to monitor and consider, they are snapshots.

To assess potential health impacts from any substance, we consider how much, how long, and how often people are exposed. When evaluating risk, federal guidelines are based on exposure over certain time periods, and you cannot reliably compare a snapshot to the established health-based standards. The community around Suncor has legitimate concerns about pollution, and we share the goal of reducing emissions in the area. We plan to continue our conversations with Cultivando so we can work together to find solutions.

We are closely monitoring emissions in this community, and will continue to evaluate all available health guidelines to guide our work. We are working with Cultivando to understand their process for data analysis and communication. We recently proposed a new rule [] to enhance monitoring and modeling requirements for, and reduce emissions from, facilities in communities that are impacted by sources of environmental pollution, including the Commerce City community surrounding Suncor.

CDPHE is also investing in the latest technology to more accurately measure pollutants in the area, including:

  • Launching our new Community Air Toxics (CAT) mobile lab, which can record real-time measurements of air toxins while driving.
  • Developing an Emissions Monitoring Utility (EMU) mobile lab. Similar to the CAT, it will further expand our community-based monitoring capabilities.
  • Creating our statutoryAir Toxics Program [] to reinforce our commitment to protecting public health by expanding monitoring for hazardous air pollutants, including a proposed site in the Commerce City-North Denver area.
Representative, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

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