Shared from the 3/7/2020 The Denver Post eEdition By Conrad Swanson The Denver Post
Suncor Energy will pay up to $9 million as part of a settlement for air pollution violations since 2017 at its oil refinery north of Denver, state health officials announced Friday.
Only a bit more than $4 million of that penalty appears certain, however, because it’s not yet clear how much of the remaining “up to $5 million” will be spent improving the Canadian company’s facilities in the Denver area.
The company also received a discount on some fines for self-reporting violations, and the settlement does not account for all possible violations in recent years, said Garry Kaufmann, director of the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division at the state Department of Public Health and Environment.
The violations covered in the settlement include a Dec. 11 release of smoke and ash out of Suncor’s stacks in Commerce City, Kaufmann said. But that and other violations were not substantial enough to cause a public health concern.
In all, the company must pay $1 million in cash administrative penalties to the state and $426,705 in other penalties to the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, state health department spokesman Andrew Bare said. An additional $2.6 million must be paid to fund community environmental projects, Bare said.
Although the company has a month to pay cash fines, the projects will take more time. It’s not clear what they’ll look like yet, said John Putnam, Colorado’s director of environmental programs.
The settlement is historic, Putnam said because it’s a record fine for a single facility in Colorado.
It’s an opportunity for Suncor to “hit the reset button” with the local community, Putnam said. “We need to work together to address the disproportionate health impacts and other impacts in these communities,” Putnam said.
Suncor representatives did not immediately respond to questions about possible additional violations, commitments on the amount of money the company will spend or offering assurances to residents.
Putnam could not immediately say how substantial any discounts Suncor received had been.
Aside from the Dec. 11 incident, the violations covered in the settlement occurred between July 2017 and June 2019, said Shannon McMillan, the compliance and enforcement manager for the department’s Air Pollution Control Division.
Forthcoming environmental projects could include providing additional filtration for homes and schools, retrofitting diesel machines to curb emissions and cleaning areas rife with dust and other possible contaminants, Putnam said. Nothing has been proposed formally.
The settlement also requires Suncor to develop and use an improved public communications system including rapid messaging and the use of multiple languages. The company must increase monitoring for hydrogen cyanide at its refinery and in surrounding communities.
Suncor is also required to hire a third-party firm to investigate the root cause of emissions violations, to recommend prevention methods and to spend up to $5 million putting those recommendations in action.
However, Bare said it’s not clear which agency — if any — would oversee whether the company will pay up to $5 million, the remainder of the $9 million total.
Violations include exceeding emissions limits for volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and more, according to a department news release.
Suncor reported when it broke its 12.8-ton emission limit for hydrogen cyanide in 2018, estimating emissions at 14.1 tons a year.
Neither nearby residents nor county emergency managers were notified at the time and later the company requested that state officials raise its limit for the toxic gas to 19.9 tons per year.
Health officials said last summer they were considering tighter regulations for the company, like those in the settlement, and that no decision had been made on Suncor’s request to loosen its hydrogen cyanide limit.