Suncor reports another unintentional chemical release

The equipment failure comes after the state reached a $9 million settlement with the company over air quality violations

Suncor's oil refinery north of Elyria-Swansea on Jan. 11, 2020. The company reported another unintentional release of chemicals on March 17, 2020. (Photo by Tina Griego)

At about 5:40 p.m. on Tuesday, an orange plume spewed from the stacks at the Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City due to an equipment malfunction. The owner of the plant said it sounded a vapor release alarm and put the troubled unit into “safe mode” before later shutting it down. 

In a statement on Facebook, the company said catalyst, a clay-like material, was released but did not specify whether it was harmful to residents. 

“All employees are accounted for and community air monitoring is in place,” the company said in a statement in English and Spanish. “Our first priority is the safety of our employees, contractors and neighbors. We are concerned about the situation and take it very seriously.”

The equipment breakdown comes about two weeks after the state reached a $9 million settlement with the Calgary-based company for air quality violations, including an “operational upset” on Dec. 11 when an orange cloud of clay-like dust was emitted from the company’s stacks before settling over Commerce City. State health officials said months later that the dust was not likely harmful to human health.  

The company is one of the largest polluters in the state, emitting cancer-causing benzene and tons of toxic hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen sulfide, both of which were once used as chemical weapons. The state allows the company to emit these chemicals by issuing the company emissions permits with caps on how much can be released. Before Colorado’s state legislators went into an unprecedented recess caused by the coronavirus pandemic, several Democrats were pushing legislation to more closely monitor and regulate these kinds of emissions. 

The state investigated the scene on Tuesday, according to a statement from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 

“State officials do not believe there is an ongoing risk to the community,” said Andrew Bare, a spokesman for the agency. 

Here’s the state’s full statement: 

“At 6:05 p.m. tonight, employees at the Suncor refinery in Commerce City notified CDPHE that one of the Suncor air blowers failed. Air blowers keep air and catalyst circulating. This failure resulted in highly visible opacity emissions. Suncor blocked off Brighton Blvd. for safety reasons and employees at the refinery successfully shut down the piece of equipment. 

“The company told us they notified the Air Pollution Control Division and the Adams County Local Emergency Planning Committee. Suncor has also been in communication with the Tri County Health Department.

“Suncor security personnel conducted monitoring with handheld devices for a range of materials, including hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, and observed no elevated levels. We will monitor the situation and review data from the air monitors we have placed around the Suncor refinery. We’ll have further updates as information comes in.” 

The refinery is located in the industrial region of north Denver and just north of a majority Latino community with some of the highest asthma rates in the country. 

Ean Thomas Tafoya, co-chair of the Colorado Latino Forum, said in a statement Tuesday he was concerned with Suncor’s response to the incident. 

“Colorado Latino Forum (CLF) is highly concerned with yet another incident at Suncor that resulted in a tepid response by Suncor; none of which indicates a clear statement that any and/or all employees are safe and out of harm, no real communication to the surrounding community other than a facebook post, and no real safety response to the community they should be accountable to,” he said. 

He said the community is again left with questions. Among those questions: What is the clear and concise protocol in place for collecting samples of the emissions? With the COVID-19 response, is CDPHE staff available and prepared for a response? Was anyone hurt? How is the company notifying the surrounding community? A siren and an executed plan? 

“The community deserves a better,” he said.


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