Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) has fined refinery company Suncor Energy at least $10.5m for air pollution violations at its Commerce City refinery.
The penalties package, which seeks to penalise the company for pollution between 2019 and 2021, is the largest that the US state has ever given against a single facility for air pollution violations.
The CDPHE said in a statement on Monday that $2.5m of the total amount ordered are penalties for environmental violations. Of this amount, $1.3m will fund projects that benefit “disproportionately impacted communities” through the state’s environment justice grant programme. A small portion of the fine will also go to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The CDPHE’s director of environmental health and protection, Trisha Oeth, said: “The communities that live and work near Suncor have experienced unfair air pollution burdens from the refinery’s permit violations for too long.
“We are committed to protecting people’s health and well-being – and today’s actions show we mean it. These penalties, projects and enhanced air monitoring ensure Suncor’s neighbours can breathe easier and the refinery takes future compliance seriously.”
A further sum of “at least” $8m has been ordered to go towards environmental improvement projects that Suncor must complete to minimise excess air pollution produced by its activity at the refinery.
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Suncor’s pollution violations include exceeding SO₂, CO and NOx emissions limits, exceeding hydrogen sulphide concentration limits, exceeding opacity and visible emissions standards, and failing to meet certain operating parameters.
Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the CDPHE, called the penalty package “historic”. “Today’s actions demonstrate our… commitment to environmental protection and the health of our residents. The agency will continue to use every tool available to prevent Suncor from having future violations.”
The department also announced it will be demanding more data and transparency from Suncor regarding its air pollution monitoring around the facility. It has ordered Suncor to double the number of air pollution monitors compared with the refinery’s original monitoring plan.
Last year, a report from the EPA found that Suncor’s Commerce City refinery may produce more air pollution than comparable refineries due to inadequacies in preventative maintenance, testing and inspection of liquid level control systems and electrical equipment. The analysis found that between 2016 and 2020, the company had the highest number of tail gas incidents out of any company operating in the region, resulting in an excessive release of SO₂.
The company saw several big deals go through last year, including a £1.3bn (€1.21bn) acquisition of French oil major TotalEnergies’ upstream assets in Canada.
A spokesperson for Suncor said in an emailed statement to Offshore Technology that the company is “committed to continuous improvement and meeting our regulatory requirements”.
“[The company has] already achieved some environmental improvements, including total hours of exceedances decreasing around 26% in 2023 compared with 2022.
“Under the terms of the settlement [with the CDPHE], Suncor has agreed to pay a total of $2.5m in penalties and has committed to implement projects at the Commerce City refinery to improve electrical reliability at a minimum cost of $8m. A plan for these projects is still being determined and will be submitted to the CDPHE. The work must be completed by 31 December 2026,” they added.
“[Suncor] voluntarily developed and launched a community air monitoring program for the Commerce City and North Denver neighborhoods in 2021 with input from the community, regulators and other stakeholders. Data gathered from that program… shows that levels have consistently remained below the acute and chronic health-protective guideline values routinely used by state and federal public health agencies.”
Editor’s note: this article was updated at 16:07 GMT to include a statement from Suncor.