The refinery has long been accused of contaminating the environment by releasing toxic chemicals into the air; in 2021, he reached a $9 million settlement with the state for violating state and federal air pollution laws.
The first permit, for plant 2 of the refinery, is currently under review by the Environmental Protection Agency for the second time after the EPA rejected the state’s first draft permit. In the meantime, the APCD and the air quality control commission are working on a first draft of the facility permit for Plants 1 and 3.
This work includes three public hearings, two of which took place on July 13, as well as a period during which people could submit written comments which ended on July 8.
According to Laura Newman, APCD permit program manager, the proposed permit addresses new regulatory requirements as well as 26 changes that impact emissions calculations, air emissions equipment and fuel standards. . The project also addresses reporting requirements, including a fence monitoring system and an emergency notification system for neighbors. The permit would require a web-based system that continuously shares emissions monitoring data with the public, an annual emissions report in a format easily accessible to the public, and a similar quarterly report.
Ongoing monitoring is an area that all stakeholders at the July 13 public hearings could agree on, with many commentators advocating such monitoring.
“Instead of these assumptions about what might come out of the stacks, everyone knows what comes out of the stacks,” said Ian Coghill, senior counsel at the landjustice Rocky Mountain Office, which submitted over 100 pages of written comments.
Donald Austin, vice president of the Commerce City refinery, noted that Suncor has invested in improvements to help bring the refinery into compliance: it has installed automatic shutdown systems, reduced the number of oil delivery trucks crude entering and exiting the refinery, improved controls on three flares, installed mechanisms to better capture waste, and replaced some engines with more modern diesel engines, among other investments.
Austin also said that while it may appear that refinery emissions are increasing, they have actually decreased over the past five years for volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and particulates.
“We recently saw a 44% decrease in the total number of permanent overtakes and a 66% decrease in the duration of overtakes,” Austin continued. These numbers represent fewer violations of the facility’s current license and violations of shorter duration.
But according to Coghill, the refinery’s acknowledged lack of compliance makes many in the community doubt that a new permit would do much, as the refinery could continue to violate the permit as it has done in the past.
In a statement, the APCD underlined that this license renewal is important because it will increase the division’s enforcement power: “The license already contains more stringent requirements for Suncor, including new provisions for monitoring, testing, record keeping and reports. The Airline Division appreciates community feedback on this license and will use your insights to help hold Suncor accountable.
However, the proposed permit also calls for an increase in permitted emission limits for nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter, and a slight decrease for sulfur dioxide.
“It’s disappointing to see a permit proposal that essentially allows the facility to pollute even more,” Denver resident Ramesh Bhatt said during one of the July 13 hearings. “It’s hard to understand how increasing pollution by 90 tonnes a year would protect a community already under enormous pollution stress.”
Many who commented called either for the permit to be denied or for the division to implement a much stricter permit than the proposed project, calling on the division not to protect the health of people who live around the refinery or the environment.
“This type of governance erodes trust in institutions,” said Emily Swallow. “It makes communities wonder why we even have permit systems and emission limits if they won’t actually be enforced.”
During the two meetings on July 13, only three people spoke in favor of the proposed permit. Angie Binder, on behalf of the Colorado Petroleum Association, Tom Peterson of the Colorado Asphalt Pavement Association and Dan Haley of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association all said Suncor was key to their industry and a good local partner.
Earthjustice, among other entities, suggested that the division combine the two permits into one, to limit confusion.
But when Earthjustice asked this, Coghill said, the division responded that it was time to end the permits due to a lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians; it would take more time to combine permits, and the division does not have time. In January, a federal judge ordered the division to act on license renewals without further delay.
Under state rules, Suncor is required to renew licenses every five years. Suncor applied for license renewal for Plant 2 in 2010 and Plants 1 and 3 in 2016 before they expired. The APCD had to respond within eighteen months but only granted the Factory 2 permit in 2021 and the Factory 1 and 3 permits in 2022.
Division spokeswoman Kate Malloy explained that the factories were originally under different owners, which is why there are still two permits.
“Although Suncor has two separate permits, the division evaluates the entire facility when making permitting and regulatory decisions,” Malloy added. “The division plans to combine Suncor’s two Title V licenses in the future.
Earthjustice is pushing for more public comment time for the Plant 1 and 3 permit, as the Plant 2 permit had a longer public comment period. During the second hearing on July 13, Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program of Guardians of WildEarth, said his organization would support such an extension and would not view it as contrary to the judge’s order to act without delay; the judge did not provide a specific timeline in the ruling.
Still, Martha Rudolph, president of the AQCC, said she was inclined to decline the request for more time.
After considering the comments (and responding to each in writing), the APCD and AQCC will create a final draft and then submit a permit for Plants 1 and 3 to the EPA. After that, the EPA will have 45 days to respond.
The EPA will make a decision on the Plant 2 permit by August 7.