COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — The yellow emissions seen coming out of the Suncor refinery Tuesday afternoon were the result of an equipment failure, the company said.
Shortly after 6 p.m. Tuesday, one of the air blowers failed at the Suncor refinery in Commerce City. Employees contacted CDPHE to report the incident.
Suncor shut down that unit, the company said.
The failure resulted in highly visible emissions from the refinery. The emissions were identified as catalyst from the Plant 2 fluidized catalytic cracker (FCC) unit. FCC catalyst is a clay-like material, Suncor said.
It's the same unit that experienced a problem on December 11.
On its Facebook page, Suncor said, "following the December 11 incident, we committed to do better. Clearly, (March 17) is not an example of doing better and we have more work to do.
The CDPHE said Suncor notified the Air Pollution Control Division and the Adams County Local Emergency Planning Committee and was in contact with the Tri County Health Department.
Suncor tested the area for hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, but did not find any elevated levels.
Commerce City residents, who live just north of the plant, expressed concern about the emissions.
"I saw the yellow smoke coming out," homeowner Jim Trujillo said. "I didn't know what it was...I just went indoors and shut the doors and that was it."
"My biggest concern is health," said Nancy Morris. "What it's doing to our health right now, being so close."
State health officials say the investigation is ongoing.
In an email to Denver7, health department spokesman Andrew Bare said they don't know yet why the blower failed and can't speculate on the cause, but they expect Suncor to file a detailed report within 30 days and will then carefully review the report.
Bare said they "will be in regular communication with Suncor to ensure oversight and that the investigation is thorough."
"In (the) initial report, Suncor reported excess opacity from one of the fluidized catalytic cracking units and excess hydrogen sulfide from one of the plant flares. We reviewed data from the state’s air monitors near the refinery for particulates, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants. That review did not show any unusual concentrations related to the Suncor release on March 17. All pollutant concentrations were well below National Ambient Air Quality Standard levels. This data is publicly available online [colorado.gov]. Also, Suncor reports that it conducted additional monitoring for hydrogen sulfide and other pollutants on site during the event," Bare added.
Bare said a recent settlement announced with Suncor addressed violations accrued between 2017 and 2019.
Tuesday's incident was not part of that settlement.
"That settlement does contain provisions requiring Suncor to work with the community to improve communications with the public. And it will require Suncor to work with a third party to investigate the root causes of violations and emissions exceedances at the refinery. We expect that the refinery will be a more compliant facility once these and other provisions of the settlement are put in place. We will also be investigating this incident thoroughly to determine lawful and appropriate steps to provide accountability and address root causes," Bare said.
Calls for tougher regulation
The Colorado Latino Forum is calling for tougher regulation of the Suncor Refinery.
The forum's environmental justice co-chair, Ean Tafoya, told Denver 7 there needs to be stricter emissions standards and much bigger fines.
"I don't think the community really trusts the government, or this industry after the legacy of not protecting us," he said. "They still have a lot of work to do and that's why we look for third party analysis."
Tafoya said the CLF is supporting two legislative bills this session.
One would regulate how much pollution refineries could release.
CLF wants "health based" safety limits and third party analysis.
The other wold increase fines the state could impose.
Employees accounted for
All employees were accounted for and community air monitoring is in place, Suncor said.
"This was a serious event and we are giving it our full attention. We have launched an investigation to determine the exact cause of the air blower trip. We need to understand this information prior to a safe re-start," the company's Facebook statement said.
In January, state regulators released a report of more than 100 unmet standards and violations at the Suncor refinery in Commerce City. Read more about the report here.
In December 2019, Suncor took responsibility after yellow particles covered nearby cars and equipment, and triggered two local schools to prompt a lockout. The company called the incident an "operational upset" that caused an "opacity event." The company called the particles emitted into the air catalyst, and described it as a "clay-like" material.