Phil Doe: A better Suncor plan: continuous real-time pollution reporting

March 2021

A Denver Post editorial recently congratulated the Suncor corporation for planning to introduce air +6 monitoring equipment into the communities surrounding the refinery it has owned for 19 years. Cultivando, a community- based nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the Latino community develop a stronger sense of civic importance and cohesiveness, has a better proposal. It was developed over the past year with the help of several other grassroots organizations with expertise in public health, engineering, environmental science, and public policy.

As background, Suncor is the second largest corporation in Canada. Its primary business is mining tar sands for oil and gas, with significant amounts transported 1,200 miles for refining in Denver.

Suncor’s community-involvement initiative is not simply goodwill. It’s part of a settlement agreement negotiated with the state after a $9 million fine in 2019 for repeated violations of its two air pollution permits. Both permits expired, one over a decade ago. The state returned $5 million of the $9 million to Suncor with the understanding the refinery would perform community outreach and other corrective actions.

The refinery emitted about 900,000 tons of pollutants in 2019. For comparison, that volume exceeds the 365,000 ton weight of the Empire State Building by more than 2.5 times.

Once the state announced last year that $2.6 million of the $9 million fine would be made available for community- directed environmental efforts, Cultivando developed a comprehensive proposal to monitor Suncor pollutants and assess their likely health and environmental impacts. The proposal focuses on residents living near the refinery, 75% of whom are Latino, but it will benefit the whole metro area.

The proposal supports two state-of-the-art monitoring stations to measure pollutants from the refinery. One station will be a permanent fence-line monitor and the other will be mobile to measure pollutants from different locations within the community. Information will appear immediately through a project website. Computer-generated maps will show the likely reach of these pollutants on the metro population. In another first, residents will see the likely drift, given wind speed and direction, of Suncor pollutants in real-time.

Additionally, measuring devices will be placed in homes and schools as secondary verification monitors and to help educate the local population on air-pollution issues.

Continuous monitoring of pollutants has never taken place before in the refinery’s 90-year history. Independent, verifiable air monitoring will be another first. Currently, Suncor self-regulates. It monitors intermittently. These are then aggregated to estimate its actual pollution. It’s been said that self-regulation has about the same relation to regulation as self-importance does to importance.

Why is continuous monitoring critical? The most recent science indicates it’s not averages but spikes in pollutants such as benzene that have the greatest impacts on public health.

Suncor self-reported two tons of benzene releases in 2019. EPA modeling suggests it could be considerably greater, maybe 70 times greater. The World Health Organization says there is no safe level of benzene human exposure. Our proposal will capture all releases as they occur.

Hydrogen cyanide will also be continuously monitored. It’s the poison gas Nazis used in the extermination camps. Suncor’s emissions of this poison have increased significantly in recent years.

The refinery requested a limit of almost 20 hydrogen cyanide tons annually creating a firestorm of opposition from proximate residents, who as The Post and other media have reported, often feel isolated and ignored. Many political leaders also objected including Congresswoman Diane DeGette who introduced legislation to put strict limits on hydrogen cyanide emissions from refineries.

Our proposal will measure as many as 50 different pollutants on a continuous basis, including radioactive pollution which new studies show can be carried long distances by particulates. Suncor reports emitting about 50 tons of particulates annually.

Our purpose is not to simply notify people when Suncor may be poisoning them, but to stop it. To do that, we must first have an accurate measure of the problem. Our proposal, if funded, will do that. This in turn should result in a broad and open civic discussion of Suncor’s future and what corrections are needed for Suncor to remain a member of our community.

Olga González is the executive director of Cultivando, a Latinx-serving organization based in Commerce City. Phil Doe is the environmental director for Be the Change, Colorado.


What about when/if the site is closed?

It would almost certainly be designated a Superfund site,  CERCLA.  Resultantly all present and past owners become liable for cleanup, as PRPs.  Conoco/Phillips, Valero, etc.  etc.,  The process is slow however because it is lawyer and court led.  I’m not an expert on Superfund so talking to the person responsible at Region 8 would be advisable.  Trump gave the big polluters, oil and gas, chemical a pass late in his administration by not requiring them to buy cleanup insurance–financial assurance.  Biden will or should reverse that.  You could ask the Region 8 the status of the Trump order too.  Our efforts to get adequate insurance and bonding for frackers in the state is not that different.  I’m not sure what insurance is required of a refinery.  Interesting question.  I’d be interested in the answer.  

In Philadelphia, after the refinery went into bankruptcy after a major explosion, the site was bought by developers in Minnesota, as I recall.  They plan to clean it up and redevelop for mixed housing and small commercial.  I haven’t looked into how much the refinery owners are on the hook for, but presumably the buyer knew what he was doing.  I’m pretty sure it has to be an EPA designated Superfund site.  Can’t imagine otherwise, but no idea what the settlement order or document look like.


There should be no exceptions or exemptions of course.  It is a health issue, not a cost issue.  From the reports I’ve seen, production is going down a lot, so newer wells may be becoming strippers.  And drillers may be controlling production to keep it below the threshold–its a yearly average so even more gaming is possible.  And remember 1000 strippers still adds up to a lot of oil and gas and a lot of pollution.  Only when we insist on looking at the individual well in isolation from the facts does any of this make any sense.


The EPA report shows they have extremely serious CCA violations in every quarter, but that the state handles.  And remember this is self reporting, but the loading is not what is reported in the papers.  The compounds are shown in pounds, not tons??? The big fight that brought all the attention to them was their desire to increase HCN to almost 20,000 tons, this shows about 33 thorns pounds.   Also they must have RCRA permits because the EPA monitoring report say they do.  Scroll down and you’ll get to it.  

On 02/26/2021 1:11 PM Joan Seeman <> wrote:

Below please read the Suncor current public community release of information.  Unfortunately, the recent Suncor public communication does not include many public unanswered “questions” regarding waste permits and inspections by the Colorado CDPHE and EPA Suncor Refinery and Suncor responses.  There is Suncor Commerce City toxic groundwater detected onsite and offsite and repeated safety concerns reported in the press, no “Agency” reports provide soil, surface water and stormwater runoff public health safety information, a public report on Suncor specific hazardous waste generated and shipped, and an explanation as to why there is a lack of EPA hazardous waste permits.  The Colorado Hazardous Waste Division reports that a Consent Order signed when Suncor took over from ConocoPhillips is what the division uses as a permit and clean up reference? 

“ WHEREAS, ConocoPhillips has agreed to sell and Suncor Energy (U.S.A.) Inc. (“Suncor”) Suncor has agreed to buy one of the refineries covered by that Consent Decree,towit: theCommerceCityrefinerylocatedinCommerceCity,Colorado (hereinafter, the “Denver Refinery”); and

WHEREAS, Suncor has contractually agreed to assume the obligations of, and to be bound by the terms and conditions of, the Consent Decree as such obligations, terms and conditions relate to the Denver Refinery, as of the date the transfer of ownership is completed (hereinafter the “Date of Purchase”).”


Below is a recent Suncor Commerce City “Community” report.

Water permit 

Suncor Energy (U.S.A.) Inc. is authorized to discharge wastewater and storm water to Sand Creek in accordance with the requirements of discharge permits issued by the Water Quality Control Division (WQCD) under the Colorado Discharge Permit System (CDPS). Permits are typically renewed on a five-year cycle. Effluent limits and permit requirements can and do change during each renewal cycle. 

1. What chemicals are reported in the Suncor Storm Water discharge permits? How many permitted release points (outfalls) to Sand Creek are there for Suncor?  Where are the releases permitted?

There are no hazardous waste permits issued by CDPHE or EPA for Suncor and yet hazardous waste is sent to the Clean Harbors Hazardous Waste Facility in Deer Trail Colorado?  

What Suncor Commerce City toxic hazardous waste is being disposed at Clean Harbors?

Are there any older landfills onsite Suncor?  

Has the Colorado Hazardous Waste Division provided a “public report” for review of the ongoing onsite clean up?

Should EPA complete a Superfund review? 

Why are there no hazardous waste permits?  

PFAS are toxic chemicals but not regulated. How many unregulated chemicals are currently used and generated by Suncor?

FEB 14, 2012 | INCIDENTS

“ Suncor Energy crews are working on a collector trench on property owned by Metro Wastewater, trying to stop the black gunk flowing from under its refinery north of Denver from reaching Burlington Ditch, Sand Creek and the South Platte River.” Feb 2012

“ liquid hydrocarbons had been detected in the water table at the southwest corner of the refinery property, near its boundary with Republic Paperboard Co. This suggested that contaminants already detected on the Metro Wastewater property had begun to seep in from another direction and threatened the Burlington Ditch.” 

“ The company also is working to complete an underground clay wall at the refinery to block toxic material from leaving the Suncor property, which has been home to oil-refining activities since the 1930s.”

“ Warren Smith, community-involvement manager for the state’s hazardous-materials and waste-management division, said groundwater collected in the trench will be pumped out and treated.” 

“Spilled contaminants from decades of refinery operations at the site have seeped underground, “and it is snaking through. The pressures change. It finds the path of least resistance, and that’s apparently what has happened. It has found the path of least resistance to get into Sand Creek,” said Colorado health department environmental-programs director Martha Rudolph.

State regulators favor construction of underground clay walls at the creek and the refinery to try to block toxic material before it spreads; vapor-extraction systems to remove it from soil; and pumping of contaminated groundwater — all aimed at preventing further pollution.”

2.  PFAS 

The Suncor Emergency Response Team does not currently use any firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals during our on-site firefighting training events. If any firefighting foam is needed in an actual emergency, Suncor will make all reasonable attempts to keep the material on site through containment or retention to prevent the migration to surface, ground, or storm water.”

Is surface water collected onsite at Suncor?

What chemicals are in PFAS chemicals? Are any used at Suncor?

What is the new Fire Fighting Foam?  What chemicals are in the foam?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that include PFOA, PFOS, and many other chemicals. PFAS chemicals have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries throughout the world, including as a key chemical ingredient used in firefighting foams at refineries, petrochemical plants, airports, and Department of Defense facilities. 

At the request of CDPHE, Suncor Energy (U.S.A.) Inc. has conducted testing for PFOS/PFOA at the Commerce City Refinery which confirms the presence of these chemicals in the groundwater below the refinery. Recent testing also indicates the presence of PFOS/PFOA in treated groundwater that is discharged from our outfall to Sand Creek – this water is discharged in accordance with a permit issued by CDPHE. 

We believe the presence of PFOS/PFOA at the Commerce City Refinery is due to the historical use of Class B firefighting foam, typical of an industrial site like ours. Suncor is working closely with CDPHE, including testing of additional locations near the refinery. The resulting data indicates PFOS/PFOA compounds are present in varying levels of concentration in Suncor groundwater samples, as well as in nearby surface waters (Sand Creek and South Platte River) both upstream and downstream of the Commerce City Refinery. We are closely following the actions being taken by the EPA and CDPHE to address the presence of PFOS/PFOA. 

In response to the Colorado Firefighting Foams Control Act, we have replaced our inventory of older firefighting foam with a new foam that complies with the U.S. EPA’s PFOA Stewardship Program-2015 Requirements. We are working through our plan to safely dispose of the older foam through a third-party vendor. 

The Suncor Emergency Response Team does not currently use any firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals during our on-site firefighting training events. If any firefighting foam is needed in an actual emergency, Suncor will make all reasonable attempts to keep the material on site through containment or retention to prevent the migration to surface, ground, or storm water. 


Is surface water collected onsite at Suncor?  Any holding ponds?

What PFAS chemicals has Suncor sampled? 

What is the new Fire Fighting Foam?  What chemicals are in the new foam?


Sand Creek 

Sand Creek is a body of water located near the Commerce City Refinery. We actively monitor and protect Sand Creek by using a boundary wall along the water line and ground water monitoring wells. 


Are the EPA and CDPHE technical fixes working to prevent toxic groundwater from flowing offsite?

Reported 2012?

Suncor begins building trench to stop flow of contaminants near Denver?

Reported 2020?

A sheen of benzene and other chemicals was detected on the surface of Sand Creek on May 7 and again on May 15, company officials said.

Sunday’s heavy rains raised water levels along the creek, leading to a breach of the containment area.

“An investigation is underway to identify the material and understand the potential source,” Suncor spokeswoman Jessica Depencier said in an emailed response to queries from The Denver Post.

“ Colorado public health officials have ordered the installation of additional underground clay barriers and groundwater monitoring wells to track toxic plumes, as well as aeration systems that suck benzene vapors from soil. More than 100 aeration wells have been placed between the refinery and the wastewater plant.

“But extracting benzene from soil has been difficult because this can spread fumes into the air. State air officials have ordered emission controls, including charcoal filters, to minimize air pollution”


Wastewater treatment plant 

“Many industrial processes, including petroleum refining, use water. Our Commerce City Refinery uses both city water and collected groundwater for steam production and cooling, as well as to wash out the natural contaminants in crude oil, like salts and minerals, to prevent corrosion in our processing units. 

Much of this water is recycled for reuse at our facility, and the remaining portion is treated and discharged to Sand Creek, under a permit issued by CDPHE. In September 2012, stricter compliance criteria were set on the refinery discharge water, effective in January 2018. To meet the new criteria, the Commerce City Refinery commissioned a $65 million USD upgrade to our existing wastewater treatment facility. The upgrade was completed in December 2017 and leverages a unique technology called membrane ultrafiltration to treat and filter the water. Our facility is one of the first in North America to use this technology in treating refinery wastewater streams. 

Membrane ultrafiltration removes particles from wastewater down to approximately 0.08 microns in size, which is about 1,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Ongoing and future construction phases will enable us to strive to continuously improve our environmental performance as well as meet increasingly tightening regulations related to wastewater treatment and discharge. At peak construction, the project employed 180 craftspeople working around the clock. The construction of the project created business for local construction companies, fabricator shops, and local suppliers of concrete, steel, electrical and control, as well as room and board for travelers.


What chemicals remain in the wastewater Sludge?  (Sewage sludge is the residual, semi-solid material that is produced as a by-product during sewage treatment of industrial or municipal wastewater)

Where is the sludge disposed?  What chemicals have been detected in the sludge?

Where are the filtration filters disposed?  Any sampling of filters performed?

What is the quality of the recycled wastewater? Any PFAS? Where will the treated wastewater be used?

5.  Does Suncor Commerce City and the tar sands source generate more hazardous pollutants and requires a dilution agent like benzene? 

“This report highlights a growing body of scientific research, and news reports about people directly impacted, showing that serious health risks and problems are arising all along this tar sands network, from northern Canada to refineries in California, the Gulf Coast, the Midwest and the rocky Mountains, as well as from accidents and spills.”

“refining of tar sands increase hazardous air pollution, it also produces an especially dirty, carbon-intensive byproduct known as petroleum coke, which is often burned in a way similar to coal.”

Natural Resource Defense Council 

When diluted tar sands crude oils arrive at U.S. refineries, they bear little similarity to conventional crude oils.43 Not only does the bitumen portion of the diluted mixture contain 102 times more copper, 11 times more nickel, and 5 times more lead than conventional crude oils, but the added diluting agent contains high concentrations of hazardous pollutants such as benzene.44 All of these chemicals may be released as air pollutants during the refining process.45 Vapor or “fugitive” emissions may escape through leaks in piping and equipment throughout the refining process, and the presence of highly volatile diluting agents makes it likely that more carcinogenic pollutants will be released into the air.46 In addition, tar sands crudes require greater use of heaters, boilers, hydro-treating, and cracking, which are likely to increase emissions of toxic and smog- and soot-forming air pollutants.47,48 These pollutants have been tied to increased cancer risks, increased respiratory issues including asthma, cardiovascular illness, developmental delays, and other negative health effects.49”

“ Federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, provincial agencies such as Health Canada, as well as state and provincial bodies should undertake research to evaluate all of the potential health impacts of tar sands crudes and make that information available on public websites. This information is needed because studies cited in this report, and others, make it clear that pollution from tar sands development is already harming public health.”


Inspection/EvaluationPCE Off-SiteEPA09/17/2020

7.  How many chemicals not reported?

Emissions Data

Self Monitoring
GHGTotal GHGsMTCO2e 801,425.23749,614.37895,790.78964,061.24922,595.84962,525.35894,420.47889,475.34927,256.30949,971.74

Toxics Release Inventory History of Reported Chemicals Released in Pounds per Year at Site

First box is 2019 ex 33,032


HYDROGEN CYANIDE33,03241,10741,17441,59144,016
HYDROGEN SULFIDE7,5315,8746,0688,5415,3825,1658,5779,853
MOLYBDENUM TRIOXIDE28,12326111,19345,569 52,712146,54622,255229,128


EPA has failed to report info re the public tar sands processed at refineries like Suncor Commerce City: “ With more tar sands flowing through pipelines, moving on railcars, and being processed at refineries, there is mounting evidence that people and communities in the vicinity of tar sands activity face substantial health and safety risks.“

Interesting list of violations; railroad safety?

Case Summary

Facility failed to make a hazardous waste determination; facility failed to prepare, sign, or use a hazardous waste manifest.


Clean Air Act (CAA): Operating Major (CO0000000800100003)

Clean Water Act (CWA): Minor, Permit Terminated; Compliance Tracking Off (COG604005), Minor, Permit Admin Continued (COS000009), Minor, Permit Terminated; Compliance Tracking Off (COR03I690), Minor, Permit Terminated; Compliance Tracking Off (COR03I605), Major, Permit Admin Continued (CO0001147), Minor, Permit Terminated; Compliance Tracking Off (COG600174)
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA): Active (COD060627189), Inactive (COT090011420)
Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA):  No Information

Suncor is reported to ship Hazardous waste to the Colorado Clean Harbors Deer Trail facility. CDPHE reports disposal of hazardous waste does not require a permit from the generator? The public would like to know what’s in the waste shipped to the Colorado Hazardous Waste site.

Region 8 EPA and Colorado CDPHE should provide reports to the Colorado community updates not just Suncor and the news:

Environmental hazards of petroleum refineries

“Refineries are generally considered a major source of pollutants in areas where they are located and are regulated by a number of environmental laws related to air, land and water. Some of the regulations that affect the refining industry include the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, CERCLA (i.e. Superfund: Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act), Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know (EPCRA), OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration), TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act), Oil Pollution Act and Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure Plans. Here is a breakdown of the air, water, and soil hazards posed by refineries:


RE: Comanche and Xcel

A robust discussion of what we owe the Xcel investors should begin today. The question is who should pay for their investment decisions?  Classically, those little risk takers are on the hook.  That’s what makes the capitalist system hum we’re told in Econ 101.  That’s why the risk is so grandly rewarded.  But maybe that’s not how the system works or ever has if you’re really rich and powerful.  Maybe we could get Buffy McFadyen to come back to the Leg. and explain it all to us.  But first she’d have to ask you what school you went to so she could tell you what your mascot was.  Some of you must remember her.  Surely? 

Xcel’s announced plan to increase its commitment to reduce its greenhouse gasses to 85 percent by 2030 is mostly sound and fury signifying deceit.  To convert the Brush plant from coal to methane gas is a side step, not reduction.  Methane gas is at least 86 times more potent than CO2 over the short-term, and it is the short-term that we must be worried about.  If we don’t fix the problem now, we probably won’t be able to fix it at all.  So say the best atmospheric scientists.  

Xcel’s plans to keep the Comanche III plant on their books till 2070 is outrageous.  The corporation had to overcome wide opposition to get it built in the first place.  It appears to be an albatross that requires almost continuous high-cost maintenance besides being a visible totem to the past when coal was king.  It is a clear indicator of why electric power should be a public endeavor not subject to corporate profit motives.  Do we need more evidence after the Texas power fiasco of last week?


Audit on PFAS efforts draws calls for EPA to ‘step up’ work

E.A. Crunden, E&E News reporter Published: Monday, March 1, 2021

The government’s top audit institution says EPA has completed half of its proposed regulatory measures targeting “forever chemicals” — findings that have already drawn attention from lawmakers and environmental groups.

In a report released today, the Government Accountability Office found EPA has completed three out of six selected regulatory actions under the PFAS Action Plan targeting per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which have contaminated drinking water supplies and are linked to a range of health concerns. The other three regulatory efforts are ongoing, with EPA targeting the end of the year for at least one rule.

GAO conducted the audit from December 2019 to January 2021. Completed regulatory actions include proposing a federal drinking water standard for two PFAS — PFOA and PFOS — a move undertaken by the Trump administration and continuing under President Biden ( E&E News PM, Feb. 22).

Other completed measures include signing a rule for PFAS and incorporating 172 of the chemicals into the Code of Federal Regulations for the Toxics Release Inventory. That will allow for the public to be informed about industrial releases of PFAS, something mandated under the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

Three actions are also ongoing. EPA is still exploring regulating PFAS under Superfund law, in addition to eyeing national effluent limitations and monitoring PFAS in drinking water nationwide. The agency intends to finalize that last rule by December 2021.

GAO noted EPA “neither agreed nor disagreed” with its findings, but the agency maintained its research and nonregulatory actions are still intertwined with regulatory moves. Under the Trump administration’s PFAS Action Plan, EPA launched a number of efforts focused on the chemicals.

“EPA also indicated that the agency has taken steps on many of its non-regulatory-related PFAS actions, such as compiling and assessing human and ecological toxicity information on PFAS to support decision-making,” GAO stated, while countering the auditor “chose to focus specifically on the six regulatory-related actions because they may lead to the issuance of federal regulations.”


The report was requested by Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Carper praised its release but emphasized the government “has a lot of work to do,” given the findings.

In a statement, Peters expressed similar sentiments.

“This report clearly shows that while progress is being made, the federal government must step up their efforts to ensure our drinking water is safe and protect communities from these hazardous chemicals,” Peters said, adding he intends to work with the Biden administration on advancing PFAS measures.

Some advocates argued the report is more notable for what it doesn’t include.

Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, highlighted its limited scope. The presence of PFAS in firefighting gear, food packaging, cosmetics and multiple other products isn’t referenced, a move Faber linked to EPA’s inaction on the wider realm of issues around the chemicals.

“What’s remarkable about this report is how little progress has been made, and also what’s missing,” said Faber. “So much of what EPA must do and even has contemplated doing under the PFAS Action Plan was not covered by this report.”

He also said the Department of Defense and Food and Drug Administration lag behind EPA in their PFAS efforts, indicating a broader issue across government. DOD in particular is facing mounting costs stemming from PFAS-related cleanup work.

Another issue not addressed in the report is PFAS disposal and concerns around the chemicals in landfills and incinerators. EPA is under increasing pressure from both industry and environmental groups to improve its PFAS disposal guidance. In public comments submitted last week, 30 advocacy groups called on the agency to improve its guidance and strengthen PFAS disposal research ( Greenwire, Feb. 24).

“This report makes it seem that EPA is batting .500,” said Faber, using a baseball reference. “In fact, they are batting .005, and the Department of Defense and FDA are not even in the batter’s box.”