Colorado seeks feedback on expired Suncor air pollution permit

Colorado environmental officials are seeking public comment on a second air permit application for Suncor Energy’s oil refinery in Commerce City — one that is four years past due at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Already, another air permit for the massive refinery expired in 2009, and the EPA recently kicked the application for that renewal back to the state for revision. That means the refinery continues to operate on expired, outdated air pollution permits.

On Tuesday, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced it is seeking public input on a draft permit for Suncor’s Plants 1 and 3 before it submits the application to the EPA. In March, the EPA objected to an application for the refinery’s Plant 2 and state health officials are working on revisions.

Michael Ogletree, director of Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division, said the state applied the EPA’s recommendations for the Plant 2 application for its Plants 1 and 3 draft.

The permit application for Plants 1 and 3 will include recently passed state laws that mandate air monitoring for three toxic chemicals along the refinery’s border and improved emergency notifications of polluting incidents at Suncor.

The application also will incorporate recently drafted federal rules intended to reduce haze that ruins views at national parks, and it will include new federal standards that require Suncor to use technologies that should reduce toxic air emissions.

The permit also would require Suncor to place real-time air monitoring devices to catch emissions coming from its stacks and to provide that data on a website. It also would require Suncor to produce annual reports on what pollutants it releases and how much, and those reports must be written in plain English and Spanish so neighbors can understand them, Ogletree said.

“Our goal is to make sure that Suncor adheres to the highest environmental and public health standards possible and we know that the facility has fallen short of that goal in recent years,” Ogletree said.

Suncor is one of the state’s largest polluters and it is facing increasing criticism from people who live nearby, environmentalists and Democratic state lawmakers as Colorado’s air pollution worsens.

The EPA announced this spring that it intends to downgrade Denver and the northern Front Range to “severe” violators of federal ozone standards from “serious” violators, meaning more companies will be required to apply for federal air permits and consumers will pay more for gasoline because a special blend will be required.

The Air Pollution Control Division on Tuesday emphasized its environmental justice efforts because Suncor is located in an area where more than 40% of the residents are Latino or Black and are predominantly low-income.

Suncor for years has released pollutants such as benzene, hydrogen sulfide and hydrogen cyanide into the atmosphere, often violating state and federal emissions standards. In 2020, the company agreed to a $9 million settlement with the state for violations going back to 2017.

The aging Commerce City refinery is required to receive two air permits from the EPA. Plants 1 and 3 are combined in one permit for operations on the west side, and Plant 2 operates on the east side, Ogletree said.

The permits regulate the pollutants the plants are allowed to release into the air.

In March, the EPA rejected the air pollution division’s application for an emissions permit for Suncor’s Plant 2 and required the state to take another look at how it monitors some of the plant’s flares, which burn off excess chemicals. The air pollution division wanted to exempt those flaring sources from regular monitoring requirements, but the EPA asked the state to do more analysis and better explain why it believes the flare sites don’t need additional monitoring.

The EPA also expressed concern about the refinery’s impact on its neighbors and asked the state to take steps to improve its impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.

Ogletree said his division is applying that feedback to its latest air permit application. Under federal law, the state must work with Suncor to develop a permit application and then the state submits that application to the EPA on behalf of the company.

Efforts to reach Suncor’s representatives on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Air permits from the EPA are supposed to be renewed every five years, but the state has delayed Suncor’s renewals for years.

The refinery’s Plant 2 has been operating under a permit that was issued in 2006 and revised in 2009. In 2010, Suncor submitted a renewal application, but the state health department did not forward it to the EPA until February of this year.

Suncor submitted its application for a renewed permit for Plants 1 and 3 in September 2016 and the air pollution division was supposed to review and revise the application and send it to the EPA within 18 months, said Joel Minor, the Air Pollution Control Division’s environmental justice program manager. That means the application was due at the EPA in March 2018, making it more than four years overdue.

Ogletree did not have a specific date for when he expects the application to be submitted. But the public feedback period on the draft will last two months and the division will have to sort through the public response and make more revisions, he said.

The public has 60 days to provide feedback on the permit application. Public hearings will be held if they are requested.

To submit feedback on the draft permit for Suncor’s Plants 1 and 3, visit

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