Report: Suncor refinery in Commerce City underestimated risk, leading to pollution violations

Local News

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (KDVR) – A new report says Suncor workers underestimated risk while operating the Commerce City refinery, which led to a number of air-pollution violations over the last few years.

The consulting firm that produced the report, Kearney, found that while the refinery has “clear and appropriate policies for dealing with identified risks, the frequent underestimating of risk contributed directly to most” of the incidents.

Since 2017, Suncor violated emissions limits for volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and particulate matter, according to CDPHE.

This includes an incident when a catalyst substance from the refinery rained on the neighboring community in the form of white ash.

In a record $9 million settlement over the violations, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment required Suncor to contract a third-party investigator to establish the root causes behind the failures.

The firm concluded “there were no deliberate or negligent actions” in funding or staffing that caused the incidents, though the report highlighted areas for improvement.

CDPHE said it’s still reviewing the report.

“Based on our initial reading of the investigative report, we believe Kearney has identified meaningful deficiencies at the refinery in culture, training, process and technology,” said Trisha Oeth, director of environmental boards and commissions and acting environmental policy advisor. “These are important insights, and an independent, third-party investigation was crucial to bringing them to light.”

Kearney recommended that Suncor install and upgrade its equipment, improve training and engage more with technical experts on its operations.

Kearney also recommended that Suncor improve staff culture to focus more on safety and environmental responsibility.

The settlement requires Suncor to spent at least $5 million on refinery improvements.

Suncor said it’s already begun to implement new initiatives, like enhanced air monitoring and communication with the communities around the refinery.

The company also said it’s upgrading its automatic shutdown systems at a cost of $12 million, which they said will “significantly reduce the potential and severity of future catalyst releases.”

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