Suncor’s Commerce City refinery is the only major petroleum refinery in the state of Colorado and one of the state’s largest single sources of air pollution.
For the residents of Commerce City and the immediate surrounding areas, many of whom are non-white, living next to the refinery means contending with daily exposure to pollutants from the facility.
Colorado’s Enviroscreen mapping tool assigns every community in the state a score to represent how likely residents are to be affected by environmental health injustices. According to this tool, all of the local census tracts, or governmentally segmented population areas, surrounding the refinery are at or above the 90th percentile. This means that 90% of Colorado communities are less likely to be impacted by environmental health injustices than the residents of Commerce City who live near the refinery.
In May 2022, Earthworks surveyed the refinery with our optical gas imaging (OGI) camera, which shows invisible pollutants like methane and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene, a known carcinogen. We observed a significant but short-lived release of pollution from one of the stacks on the refinery
Here is what the stack looked like to the naked eye:
And here is what our OGI camera captured:
We shared this video with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) because we were concerned that the emissions we had filmed might not be permitted. It is important to understand that sources of air pollution, like the stack in this video, are allowed to pollute up to a certain limit. A violation occurs only when the pollution released exceeds the limits set in an air permit. While this is not ideal if the goal is to eliminate the burden of air pollution from a community it is the bare minimum we should be able to expect from the regulation of pollutants: an estimate of what pollution is going to occur and some controls in place, if necessary, to ensure that the pollution does not exceed limits
What we learned from CDPHE is that the stack in question was actively monitored for some major pollutants like carbon monoxide but not for hydrocarbons which include methane and volatile organic compounds like benzene. At a facility that is refining oil, some of the primary pollutants from oil and gas processing were not being monitored on at least one major source of pollution. Worst, we learned that there were no limits, at that time, in the amounts of VOCs that could be released from that stack. The stack in question, one of hundreds of sources of pollution at the refinery, was allowed to release harmful, carcinogenic compounds into the air without any limits.
The environmental health injustices faced by the communities surrounding the refinery are no accident, they are the direct result of a regulatory system that has permitted the refinery to pollute nearby residents for generations. While there are limits to what state regulators can do to regulate pollution, there is no excuse for lax oversight of pollution that has known impacts on public health.
Community members are calling for more accountability and transparency after years of being ignored, and Cultivando, a local community group, is partnering with outside groups to conduct comprehensive air quality monitoring (https://www.cultivando.org/blank-1). Colorado needs to listen and to make substantive improvements. If the state intends to champion its progress in addressing environmental injustices, it should actually start addressing environmental injustices.