The allegations against the CDPHE implicate the air permit renewal for the Suncor Energy Oil Refinery in Commerce City. The draft permit was put together using the now-invalid 2010 guidance memo—PS Memo 10-01—under which air division employees were directed not to model certain short-term pollution totals, which was challenged by whistleblowers represented by PEER on March 30. Suncor has been operating under permits that expired in 2011 and 2017. The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) held two public hearings on the permit via Zoom during the first week of May, which were well-attended by advocates urging the AQCC not to renew the permit. Multiple commenters cited the whistleblower complaint and a concern that the Air Pollution Control Division is continuing to permit projected violations of EPA standards as part of why the Commission should deny the permit. On May 19, 2021, U.S. Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado’s 1st District wrote to CDPHE’s Executive Director expressing her own concerns about whether Suncor is capable of complying with applicable air quality standards.
Conservation groups hired an independent modeler to use the state’s own data and model Suncor. The results were as expected: the modeling analysis reveals that the Title V permitted emissions for the Suncor refinery would result in exceedances of both the one-hour SO2 and NO2 NAAQS.
The CDPHE has further failed to assess the cumulative impacts of multiple sources of emissions on air quality in the area north of Denver. PEER’s comments and communications with the CDPHE have highlighted that the neighborhoods of Commerce City are impacted by both the Suncor Oil Refinery and the Cherokee Power Plant, and the emissions for each have only ever been assessed individually rather than looking at their cumulative impacts on the area. The Cherokee Power Plant’s own air permit was also issued in 2012 under the now-defunct PS Memo 10-01 and did not include necessary air modeling.
Suncor’s draft air permit should additionally not be approved given the refinery’s history of exceeding the pollution limits outlined in their long-expired permit. Between March 27 and April 22 of this year, the refinery exceeded limits 15 times on emissions such as hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide. Such overages are only the latest in a pattern of 108 malfunctions in five years and over 500 pollution spikes that exceeded limits in the last two and a half years. Further, Suncor has requested an increase to its permitted annual release of hydrogen cyanide—from 12.8 tons to 19.9 tons—which it exceeded in 2018. This request comes despite a lack of direct measuring or exposure studies to determine if the levels requested are safe, and the limit set by Colorado in Suncor’s permit allows the company to avoid reporting hydrogen cyanide emissions to the EPA.