EPA deals blow to major oil refinery, citing environmental justice concerns over toxic air

May 6, 2022

Quick take:

  • In a groundbreaking move, the EPA questioned air pollution permits for one of the largest oil refineries in the Rocky Mountain region.
  • The state of Colorado must now reconsider the permit issued to Suncor Oil Refinery which has been spewing toxic pollution in excess of permitted levels for years.
  • Environmental justice advocates and local communities welcomed the move and continue their fight for change.

The EPA has objected to Colorado’s permit renewal for Suncor Refinery, one of the largest refineries in the Rocky Mountain region and a major supplier of gas, diesel and jet fuel to the state. Under the Clean Air Act, all polluting industries must apply to the state for permission to release a certain level of toxins into the air during their operations. Environmental groups and activists have long been fighting for more stringent regulation of the 91-year-old refinery’s emissions, including ground-level ozone, a dangerous toxin linked to asthma and heart disease. 

The EPA’s objection, on March 25, signals the agency's re-commitment to Clean Air Act regulations, that were loosened under the Trump administration. The move directly expresses environmental justice and civil rights concerns for communities north of Denver that abut the facility. 

"It’s really rare for the EPA to question state permitting approvals," says Patrice Tomcik, national field manager for Moms Clean Air Force, an Environmental Defense Fund affiliate advocating for change. "And more uncommon to comment on environmental justice issues."

Suncor Refinery in Commerce City. March 16, 2017, Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Toxic pollution from Suncor oil refinery in Colorado exceeded permitted limits more than 500 times in two years. Credit: Getty

Suncor Refinery has a long history of polluting above permitted levels. Last year, the company exceeded pollution limits 15 times in a three-week period alone. Since 2012, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) has allowed the refinery to operate on expired permits based on renewal requests, enabling Suncor to skirt oversight for a decade. While the new proposal lowers the threshold for some emissions, it increases the limit on others, like ground-level ozone.

In its recommendations, the EPA highlighted the lack of monitoring around three flare sources that burn raw gases. It also found roughly 40 changes to Suncor’s permits since 2009 without a public vetting process. Suncor characterized these changes as “minor modifications” to qualify for Clean Air Act exemptions. But the EPA said this practice “deprived the public of meaningful participation” on the effects these changes have on air quality.

Shaina Oliver, a member of the Navajo Nation from Shiprock, New Mexico and a Moms Clean Air Force field organizer, lives just south of Suncor. She has been instrumental in bringing the permitting loopholes and severe health impacts on her community to public and congressional attention. In an op-ed for The Denver Post, Oliver, and fellow activist Lucy Molina described the yellowish chemical dust that blanketed the area around the refinery in 2019, forcing local schoolchildren to shelter in place. “The company’s response was to offer us all free car washes, as if exposure to this material did not warrant a full examination along with medical care,” they wrote. Residents complain of bloody noses, asthma, migraines and more. 

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The EPA’s move shines a light on Colorado’s permitting process for big industries. Oliver hopes it will force the state to enforce Clean Air Act violations that often hit communities of color and low wealth hardest. Nationwide, these groups make up more than half the population who live within two miles of commercial toxic waste sites. 

“There was no plan for people to be living right next to these facilities,” said Oliver. “But now, it’s where the available affordable housing is. We can’t simply move.”

Over decades, communities like Oliver’s have grown distrustful of government promises to improve air quality. The Biden administration has pledged to elevate environmental justice issues. The questioning of Suncor follows EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s 2021 “Journey to Justice” listening tour, a first of its kind sojourn across Gulf Coast communities plagued by water contamination, air pollution, and widespread health problems.

“As I look at many of the folks in these communities, they look just like me,” said Regan, the first Black man to head the agency. “They look just like my son, and it’s really tough to see them question the quality of their drinking water.”

Regan, a former EDF employee, acknowledged the years of neglect that communities have endured from the EPA and state and local governments. The agency recently drafted a plan to assess risk to these communities from nearby chemical exposure. EDF praised this step, but called for a far broader approach to capture the full scope of risk.

What’s clear is that the Suncor permit objection is just the beginning. The CDPHE now has 90 days to respond to the EPA's recommendations. In the meantime, the refinery continues to operate as usual. Oliver is prepared for a long fight. “We aren’t going to look away,” she says. “We want clean air, breathable air, and that’s what we deserve.”

This article appears in the Summer 2022 edition of EDF’s Solutions magazine. Join EDF and receive the magazine for free!