COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — A report released by an environmental group blames Suncor for releasing a large proportion of the perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) found in Sand Creek and the South Platte River.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS, otherwise known as forever chemicals, have been linked in numerous studies to health problems ranging from liver and kidney issues to reproductive and immunological issues.
Renee Millard Chacon has lived near Commerce City her entire life and says she's suffered from health issues due to the refinery.
“I have respiratory issues. My sons also suffer from forms of nosebleed and different forms of respiratory illnesses,” Chacon said.
Chacon has a form of anemia she says is not genetic.
PFAS chemicals never break down. They are most commonly used in fire suppressant foam, but are also found in consumer products like non-stick pans.
The study, which was commissioned by Earthjustice and prepared by Westwater Hydrology LLC, used geological data from water flow, along with data from Suncor itself, to determine the proportion of PFAS in the waterways it believes the refinery is responsible for.
Suncor has been collecting that data and submitting it to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
In 2021, the report determined that Suncor is responsible for up to 18 percent of the PFAS chemicals found in the South Platte River and 47 percent of the PFAS chemicals recorded in Sand Creek.
“That is a significant amount of pollution,” said Alexandra Schluntz, an associate attorney with Earthjustice. “Our government shouldn't be allowing this type of toxic pollution in our water.”
Sand Creek feeds into the South Platte River and, in turn, many municipalities in the surrounding area that use the river for their drinking water. The river is also used in agriculture to water crops, which are eaten by livestock and humans alike.
Chacon, who is the co-founder of Womxn from the Mountain and a member of the state’s Environmental Justice Action Task Force, says she has known for some time that something was in the water from the refinery, but much of the attention has historically been on the air pollutants. She believes Commerce City is often forgotten by the state.
“We've always known Commerce City as the armpit of Colorado," she said. "It has always smelled, there's always been issues."
Now, Earthjustice is calling for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) to tighten its water standards for Suncor for the sake of health and safety.
“What they can do is make Suncor’s permit stronger by strengthening the PFAS limits, by requiring more frequent monitoring at more outfalls, not just the one outfall, and by having a strict compliance timeline,” Schluntz said.
The study was released as CDPHE reviews a draft water permit for the refinery. Last week was the deadline for members of the public to weigh in.
The proposal would require Suncor to monitor the levels of PFAS in its wastewater and groundwater. The refinery would also be required to limit the amount of PFAS it releases to 70 parts per trillion, which would follow federal EPA standards.
While the move would be a big step forward for environmentalists, Schluntz and advocates from Earthjustice would like to see the level brought down even more.
“The EPA standards right now are not protective of public health,” she said. “Those limits need to be much lower, there really is no safe level for public health.”
Chacon, meanwhile, says any efforts to mitigate the refinery’s impacts in water and air should include restorative elements, particularly for disproportionately-impacted communities.
“This is our water. This is our land for our family too,” she said. “It's recognizing where there's been lack of restorative justice that we're only taking from the resource without renewing for future generations.”
The permitting process is expected to wrap up in the next couple of months. Once it does, the water permit will be good for five years, but could be extended.
In a statement, Suncor said it was reviewing the report and will respond during the next Water Quality Control Division comment period. The company also said it is not causing surface water concentrations to exceed the EPA's drinking water health advisory for PFAS chemicals.
"We are currently reviewing the report. After review, we will respond to the report through the Water Quality Control Division's established permit renewal process in the next phase of the comment period.
As explained in our comments submitted to the Division, Suncor is not causing surface water concentrations to exceed the EPA’s Drinking Water Health Advisory for PFOA/PFOS of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) in Sand Creek, which is also not classified for drinking water use. In fact, PFAS/PFOS levels in Sand Creek are in the same range both upstream and downstream of the refinery. In addition, the data shows that the concentrations of PFOA/PFOS are consistently below 70 ppt in the portion of the South Platte River that is classified for drinking water use."