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EPA, Colorado regulators cite Suncor oil refinery for another round of air-quality violations

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Chase Woodruff

(Colorado Newsline) An escalating series of penalties and enforcement actions targeting a Colorado oil refinery hasn’t yet brought an end to the facility’s long-running pattern of violating state and federal air emissions laws, regulators said Monday.

In a 140-page notice of alleged violations issued to Suncor Energy last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said the company’s sprawling Commerce City refinery is in violation of at least a dozen separate statutes, rules, permit requirements and other obligations under the Clean Air Act.

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“EPA remains unyielding in its efforts to ensure the Suncor refinery complies with laws and regulations that protect human health and the environment,” EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker said in a statement. “Working with the state, we will continue to investigate these alleged violations and pursue all opportunities to improve conditions for the residents of north Denver, Commerce City and nearby communities.”

The Suncor facility is Colorado’s only oil refinery and one of its largest single sources of air pollution. It has been owned and operated by Canada-based Suncor Energy since 2005, and in recent years has been repeatedly cited by state air quality regulators for chronic violations of emissions standards, as well as high-profile incidents like a 2019 “operational upset” that caused school lockdowns and a yellow ash-like substance to fall on nearby neighborhoods. In February, state regulators announced they had imposed a record $10.5 million penalty on Suncor for past violations, exceeding a $9 million settlement with the company announced in 2020.

Environmental groups say such penalties are simply the cost of doing business for the energy giant, which reported $2 billion in profits in the fourth quarter of 2023 alone. But legislative proposals to expand state regulators’ authority to crack down on polluters like Suncor have mostly stalled in the face of opposition from business groups. Using a process established by the Clean Air Act, attorneys for several Colorado environmental groups last month filed a notice of intent to sue Suncor in federal district court after a 60-day waiting period has expired.

The latest round of violations alleged by the EPA and CDPHE stems from a series of state and federal inspections of the refinery conducted in 2023. The “joint enforcement action” initiated by the July 2 notice is the first major effort under a 2022 memorandum of understanding between the two agencies to better coordinate environmental justice programs.

“We’re grateful for EPA’s partnership in this enforcement action, and we’re confident it will build upon our recent actions and improve the refinery’s operations,” CDPHE executive director Jill Hunsaker-Ryan said in a statement. “Through a comprehensive approach, we continue exploring all options to ensure Suncor complies with air quality requirements.”

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