Suncor’s hydrogen-cyanide emissions exceeded permit last year; Colorado now deliberation refinery’s request to increase limit

When Suncor Energy’s oil plant north of Denver — which emits more than 800,000 dozens of air pollution a year — bust a 12.8-ton limit for one invisible cyanogenic gas last summer, the event went much unnoticed.

Neither Suncor nor state health officials alerted near residents or county emergency managers about the July test that estimated H-cyanide emissions at a level of 14.1 dozens a year.

Ten months after Suncor according that violation, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment has not fined the company, though officials in recent weeks aforementioned they’re still considering social control.

Now state officials are deliberation a request from Suncor — Colorado’s only plant and one of the state’s largest polluters — to raise its H-cyanide permit limit upward to 19.9 dozens a year, giving the fossil fuels plant a lesser buffer.

The state health department and the Environmental Protection Agency say Suncor’s current permitted level of H-cyanide emissions is safe, though no direct measuring or exposure studies have been done.

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The pollution from Suncor’s Commerce City plant exemplifies the additive environmental degradation on Colorado’s Front Range that increasingly rankles residents. For decades, people in the mostly Latino lower-income north Denver neighborhoods of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea have suffered disproportionately from asthma attack attack, cancer and heart-lung ailments — possibly related to air pollution.

And critics, including U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, contend the Colorado health department’s handling of H cyanide shows a regulatory approach focused on individual pollutants that, when no federal regulations apply, lets companies dictate how much they should be permitted to pollute.

Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio, who learned about the elevated H-cyanide level from The Denver Post, aforementioned the state’s handling of this gas reveals problems that must be fixed.

“Whether it comes from the company or the health department, families in near neighborhoods should be notified when there is a violation of air quality standards by person operational near their homes — especially if the violation has a potential to affect their health,” O’Dorisio aforementioned.

“It is fair to expect our state and federal health agencies to determine safe levels of air quality and make sure permitting processes promote health and safety. … Where standards are not met, we expect meaty social control and corrective action.”

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
A bird space by Suncor Energy’s oil plant in Commerce City, just north of Denver, on May 14, 2019.

H cyanide increase due to “variability”

H cyanide, a byproduct of process crude oil at the nation’s 135 refineries, can be deadly. It’s a colorless gas that smells faintly of almonds. In concentrated form, it’s what the Nazis used to exterminate prisoners in their death camps during World War II, and it’s been used in death-penalty executions in the United States.

Exposure at high levels leads to rapid breathing followed by convulsions, loss of consciousness and death, according to the EPA. Low-level exposure causes trouble breathing, chest pain, vomit, headaches and enlargement of the thyroid gland.

Scientists don’t know about the accumulative impacts on people who inhale multiple pollutants.

“We feel it in our health,” aforementioned north Denver community organizer Robin Reichhardt, describing chronic coughs and congestion he, his partner and two sons endure. “What are all these distinct gases doing? What is the cocktail doing? … It’s like being a guinea pig. The state and company don’t really know, and it is not that important to them to find out.”

H cyanide is just one of dozens of cyanogenic gases wafting from the stacks at Suncor’s plant.

A review by The Denver Post of state and federal information determined the plant besides releases 886,000 dozens of heat-trapping greenhouse gases annually, on with 24 dozens of sulfur compound, 12.5 dozens of H sulfide, 25 dozens of gas-forming volatile organic compounds, 4 dozens of carbon compound, 49 dozens of N compound and 55 dozens of particulates.

Some of these are regulated or limited through permits. Some are not. H cyanide, on with cancer-caexploitation benzene and H sulfide, rank among the most possibly harmful.

Suncor plant operators declined to discuss in detail the pollution from their facility, one of 65 refineries in the nation that process more than 100,000 large indefinite quantity a year of crude oil.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Robin Reichhardt, left, stands with his married woman Yolanda Begay and their two sons Giovanni, 8, and Atsa, 1, outside their home near SunCor Energy’s oil plant on May 9, 2019. They are worried about the air the family breathes due to pollution from the plant.

Michael Lawrence, Suncor’s media and issues management adviser, confirmed in an email that “consistent with permit processes,” the Canadian energy company “submitted a modification” after exceptional the company’s current permit limit last summer.

Suncor conducted a second test last year that showed H-cyanide pollution back down below the 12.8-ton permit limit.

The 14.1-ton result last July echoic “variability,” Lawrence aforementioned, adding that it was “not the result of accumulated production (of oil) or loss of efficiency” and that Suncor in 2017 emitted lower-than-average H cyanide compared with other refineries. H-cyanide emissions “vary during commerce trading operations due to the complex chemistry that occurs with the fluidized chemical process cracker unit,” he aforementioned.

There’s no federal regulatory limit on H cyanide the way there is for sulfur compound, gas and particulates. DeGette, D-Denver, recently launched legislation in Congress that would compel the EPA to set a national limit and enforce it.

Metro Denver air since 2008 has flunked federal health standards. But Gov. Jared Polis has signaled an intent to reduce air pollution.

“The Polis administration is committed to up air quality and is actively examining what more can be done with existing authority to clean our air,” aforementioned Jill Hunsaker Ryan, director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. “Currently there’s neither federal nor state law limiting H-cyanide emissions. Until there is, having an enforceable permit provides transparency for the neighborhoods, accountability because Suncor has to follow to a limit, and a mechanism for social control if Suncor violates the permit.”

Enforcement occurs on two levels, aforementioned Garry Kaufman, director of the Colorado health department’s Air Pollution Control Division.

First, state health officials respond instantly and work to bring facilities back into compliance and require extra testing, which he aforementioned happened at Suncor last year. That’s followed by “a comprehensive annual review of the total compliance of the largest facilities.”

“This comprehensive social control process takes more time, but is critical for finding, correcting and prosecuting violations,” Kaufman aforementioned in a statement. “When large penalties can be at stake, we want to be thorough and careful to bring the best cases and ensure fairness. As our record shows, this has led to large penalties and compliance fixes from Suncor.”

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Suncor Energy has unasked the state raise the limit for H cyanide gas emitted annually from its oil plant placed in Commerce City, pictured on May 1, 2019.

A history of air quality issues

One of Colorado’s largest and most technically complex sources of pollution, the Suncor plant sits on an 80-year-old industrial site near the confluence of Sand Creek and the South Platte River.

A plant was built there in 1940, historical records show. A 1978 explosion killed three people, caused $10 million in amends, launched an orange fireball over the city and registered 1.5 on the Richter scale.

In 2003, Suncor bought the plant from ConocoPhillips in a $150 million deal. Over the past 13 years, Suncor has spent $1.6 billion on modernization and upgrades.

Yet the plant repeatedly has had problems. State air quality regulators have begun at least seven cases once once against Suncor in the last six years seeking penalties for emissions of sulfur compound and other cyanogenic gases, and they’ve ordered Suncor to correct deficiencies.

In 2012, state regulators fined Suncor $2.2 million for violations related to benzene air pollution above limits from the plant. In 2015, state regulators ordered Suncor to fix other pollution problems detected in 2013 and 2014. Suncor at one point negotiated a deal to avoid admitting law violations in return for paying a $214,050 body penalty.

SEP 28 1978, OCT 3 1978 ...
Denver Post file
Water is sprayed onto burning structures at the Continental Oil Company plant following an explosion on Oct. 3, 1978. The plant is now owned by Suncor Energy.

Colorado public health officials still are looking into possible social control of Suncor’s existing 12.8-ton permit limit and the company’s request to raise that limit, Kaufman aforementioned.

“CDPHE has not approved an increase in the H-cyanide limit to 19 dozens, and we will not approve so much an increase unless the science shows that emissions at that level do not pose a threat to public health,” he aforementioned in an interview.

“I understand the concerns” residents have raised about H cyanide, Kaufman added. “But it is not just the substance. It is besides the concentration.”

A few years ago, Suncor asked state health officials to include H cyanide pollution in the company’s operational permit because, under exemptions in federal environmental Torah, this lets a company avoid coverage emissions to the EPA, a review of state documents found.

In February 2018, Colorado officials signed off on Suncor’s unasked state permit limit of 12.8 dozens, higher than the 8.5 dozens the energy company antecedently had according to the EPA. Neighborhood groups objected, filing a legal appeal asking the EPA to intervene, but agency administrator Andrew Wheeler rejected that request in January.

The plant is motivated “to improve transparency” and “we believe we are more transparent in coverage” pollution to Colorado officials “by having it in the permit,” Suncor’s Lawrence aforementioned in an email. If the EPA and state officials prefer, he aforementioned, the company will resume “the former way” of coverage H cyanide to federal agencies.

RJ Sangosti, Denver Post file
The Environmental Protection Agency investigated a tip that Suncor Energy’s oil plant was emitting an oily substance into Sand Creek in Commerce City on Nov. 29, 2011. (RJ Sangosti, Denver Post file)

“The air doesn’t stop here”

North Denver residents for years have raised concerns about plant air pollution, which includes the multiple cyanogenic gases as well as heat-trapping carbon compound, methane series series and nitric compound — greenhouse gases that accelerate global warming, leading to hotter years, more extreme storms, worsening fires and changing water flows.

Suncor and public health officials “try to keep everything in secret,” aforementioned Sandra Ruiz-Parrilla, president of a neighborhood group and mother of three, who drops off her third-grade girl at a school just downwind of the plant.

“This should be an issue for the whole city because the gas does not stop here,” she aforementioned. “The air doesn’t stop here. The wind doesn’t stop here. It blows over the city. The whole city inevitably to know what’s going on. It doesn’t just affect us.”

East of the plant, people in Commerce City and unorganized Adams County say they, too, are aware that cyanogenic gases flow out of Suncor’s stacks. They say it irks them and that they’re skeptical of government declarations deeming health risks acceptable.

“You know it is there. You know it is bad,” aforementioned Paul Solano, who is running to be city manager of Commerce City with an intent to reduce air pollution. “No federal response. No state response. No municipal response. We have children playing outside breathing this H-cyanide gas. thing inevitably to be done.”

North Denver leadership turned to EarthJustice attorney Joel Minor, who consulted with a state health department whistle blower in trying to gather facts.

“It’s appalling that Suncor is emitting H cyanide above its permitted level because the plant is placed next to preponderantly Latino communities in north Denver and Commerce City that not yet suffer negative health outcomes because they bear a disproportionate burden of pollution from galore sources,” Minor aforementioned.

Photo courtesy of Gordon Eaton
A cloud of yellow smoke is emitted at Suncor Energy’s oil plant in Commerce City on Oct. 14, 2016. A power failure at the plant caused a cloud of thick yellow smoke to be discharged.

Extrapolating a permitted level

The EPA in 2015, compelled by a Torahuit, looked at the H cyanide problem nationwide. Agency officials settled on a method of estimating H cyanide concentrations in air exploitation carbon compound as a surrogate. If companies meet a carbon compound air pollution limit of 500 environment per million, then H cyanide is presumed to be acceptable.

“We foretold what HCN (H cyanide) concentrations would be outside of the refineries and we complete that the health risk from HCN emissions was acceptable,” EPA interpreter Enesta Jones told The Post.

States including Colorado use this extrapolation method, though air quality regulators in Southern California now require direct measuring of H cyanide.

When Suncor last year unasked the 12.8-ton permit limit, state health officials say they used a computer model that factors in topography and wind on with tests for carbon compound to calculate that the air people breath around the plant would be comparatively safe.

They relied on the EPA “reference level” for chronic exposure to H cyanide — 0.7 environment per billion — above which the gas could cause harm, Kaufman aforementioned. The state’s modeling estimated H cyanide air concentrations around Suncor would not exceed 0.03 ppb if the plant emitted 12.8 dozens per year, he aforementioned.

State air pollution officials “have made some refinements to the model,” he aforementioned, and it will be used to estimate air concentrations at Suncor’s new unasked H cyanide limit of 19.9 dozens per year.

In Congress, DeGette’s legislation would force the EPA to set a national H cyanide regulatory limit based on science and health studies. DeGette besides is pressing the EPA — she runs an oversight panel — to figure out for states how much H cyanide emitted from plant stacks is likely to lead to too much in the air people breathe. plant operators would have to advise people in neighborhoods in case of emergency releases.

Colorado public health officials have balked at setting a state limit on H cyanide pollution, DeGette aforementioned in an interview.

“What they did was they just asked Suncor how much they were emitting. They added that into the permit with a buffer and made a state limit. They did that without any scientific analysis,” she aforementioned. “We cannot just have the company expression, ‘This is how much we are emitting,’ and then say, ‘OK, that is how much you can emit.’ We need to find out a limit that is safe.”

Kaufman, the state’s air pollution control director, aforementioned lease companies measure their pollution and then incorporating that level with a buffer into permits is not standard practice.

“In the cases where there is no regulatory limit, we allow that,” he aforementioned. “That is the exception rather than the rule.”

“An incredibly poisonous gas”

At the plant, H cyanide comes from fluid chemical process cracking units, which process heavy crude oils, that began operational in 1971, EPA records show.

“They are over their limit. I recommended social control on it,” aforementioned Jeremy Murtaugh, a former state air quality compliance official who inspected the plant last year after company testing in July showed elevated emissions. Murtaugh resigned this year, citing concerns about weak social control and a culture of occuterracen to industrial polluters.

He called H cyanide “an incredibly poisonous gas.” But state social control officials told him they “did not want to move forward” until they received clearance from superiors, he aforementioned.

During his visit at the plant, Murtaugh aforementioned he asked Suncor officials for an explanation for the accumulated emissions.

“I wanted them to explain what processes at the plant accumulated or decrease emissions,” he aforementioned. “The response I got from them was that they did not know thing about cyanide emissions and they didn’t have any idea of relationships to their operational scenarios.”

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Suncor Energy’s oil plant continues production in Commerce City on May 1, 2019.

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North Denver residents living downwind of the plant and other pollution sources aforementioned they’re too aware of the perils.

“Living up here, it knocks years off your life,” aforementioned Armando Payan, 62, sitting on his Globeville terrace just north of Interstate 70 recently. He pointed to his mother’s heart attack and the recent death of a relative at age 49 of a heart attack as possible evidence.

“They allow all these cyanogenics,” Payan aforementioned. “It is cyanogenic out here. My married woman, she wanted to move out of here and go to Texas. … I can’t just turn my back. … Why don’t we have an environmental plan as part of our neighborhood plan?”

Payan worked with Denver Public Schools officials to scrub down the Garden Place Elementary School last summer exploitation a Ti compound material. Payan besides clean his home to remove as galore contaminants as possible, he aforementioned.

“But cyanide gas? It is death.”