Colorado does not protect people from health risks from refinery pollution and monitors finds


A year of community-organized aerial surveillance suggests current regulations aren’t strict enough to protect the health of people living near Suncor’s Commerce City refinery, supporters of the nonprofit Cultivando said.

Cultivando’s monitoring program, Air Quality Investigation and Research for Equity, or AIRE, has been running for about a year and is funded by EPA grant money and a portion of Suncor’s $9 million 2020 settlement, which is for community projects was determined. The nonprofit organization dedicated to improving environmental conditions for Latino communities in Adams County released AIRE’s findings at a news conference Wednesday.

Cultivando executive director Olga Gonzalez said the health impact disproportionately affecting residents of Adams County, which is majority Latino, is environmental racism. The AIRE program began as a way for local attorneys to collect more evidence of air quality issues and lobby for tougher regulations from the Colorado Department of Public Health.

Gas prices skyrocketed this winter when Suncor, the state’s only oil refinery, shut down after an equipment failure in December. The refinery plans to fully reopen by the end of March, but for community members and families who say they’ve suffered from headaches, nosebleeds and higher-than-normal rates of illness, Suncor’s operations will continue to be a drag, Gonzalez said.

“Why should our community be sacrificed for cheaper gas?” she said. “Why do our children have to pay this price?”

CDPHE collects its own measurements of air quality in Commerce City, and Suncor monitors emissions at its property line.

In a statement emailed to The Sun, Suncor said its instruments did not detect air pollutants above “acute and chronic” public health standards. Suncor said it supports all aerial surveillance efforts and values ​​its relationship with Cultivando.

“We plan to continue listening to the community and sharing information about community air quality. We are committed to doing this work in a data-driven and collaborative manner,” the statement said.

Detlev Helmig, whose company Boulder Atmosphere Innovation Research carried out the aerial surveillance of Cultivando, presented the main results of the program. Boulder AIR’s instruments identified transient local peaks in pollutant levels such as benzene or harmful particulate matter thanks to high-resolution, time-specific measurements, Helmig said.

Often, ambient air pollution is measured and averaged over time, making it impossible to identify those spikes, which can be short-lived but harmful to health, Helmig said.

“Pollution levels go up and down, up and down very dynamically all the time,” he said. “If you happen to go out there at a certain time when the levels are low, it might not look too worrisome and it might look pretty clean. But you come back only half an hour later and the conditions may have changed very dramatically.”

Helmig compared measurements collected at monitoring sites in other Front Range communities, such as Broomfield, with data from Boulder AIR monitors in Commerce City. Significant concentrations of benzene, hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter, and other pollutants were present in Commerce City. Helmig said it’s not easy to definitively identify the origins of all pollutants in Commerce City, which has several industrial sites and is surrounded by busy freeways, but cloud maps showing chemical concentrations have helped them identify potential emission locations, including the area, where Suncor’s facility is located.

Andrew Klooster, field attorney for Colorado with the national non-profit earthworks, provided additional evidence of Suncor’s smoke emissions. Klooster, a certified optical gas imaging thermographer, used a special camera to film emissions of volatile organic compounds like methane, ozone and benzene, which are invisible to the human eye. He showed videos of VOCs coming from two Suncor batches that weren’t monitored for VOC emissions, he said.

Significant levels of propane, another VOC, were also detected by Boulder AIR’s instruments. Evidence of these VOCs in the region has been presented to state and local authorities, Klooster said, but so far there has been little to no interest in understanding or curbing the sources of their emission. He said the constant challenge of conducting this independent research is taken seriously by those with the power to regulate.

“When you collect evidence as a third party, as a community, no matter how rigorous your methodology, no matter how rigorous your methodology is, that evidence is not given full weight, whether you are doing exactly what the state is doing or not doing the evidence,” he said . “It’s not fully accounted for.”

The state will likely have to replicate the results of AIRE itself in order to respond or inform regulation. But the status quo needs to change, Klooster said, because current standards of permit compliance and enforcement don’t really hold industrial polluters like Suncor accountable for their emissions.

dr David Brown, a public health toxicologist, said a flaw in the regulation is that it sets limits on the concentrations of chemicals alone—it doesn’t account for combinations of different toxins. CDPHE monitoring does not typically indicate the presence of toxins in excess of public health standards. But while individual concentrations can be low on their own, he said, “synergistic toxic effects” between different pollutants can have significant health implications.

“Two irritants don’t make it twice as irritating,” he said. “It might make it 10 times as irritating.”

Gonzalez said the AIRE results show public health has been compromised by local industry and failed by state regulators. CDPHE hasn’t been a very helpful partner in the past, she said, but she hopes the department will work with Cultivando to effectively protect these affected communities in the future.

In an emailed statement to The Sun, CDPHE said it had reviewed the data from Cultivando and recognized it “as part of a larger school of information” about air quality in Commerce City. Current approaches to regulation in the region are based on state and federal air quality guidelines, the Department of Health said, and while recording short-term spikes can be important, common standards rely more heavily on longitudinal assessments.

“To assess potential health effects of a substance, we consider how much, how long, and how often people are exposed,” the statement said. “In risk assessment, federal guidelines are based on exposure over specific periods of time, and you cannot reliably compare a snapshot against established health-based standards.”

CDPHE said it is closely monitoring air quality in the Suncor area and will continue to work with Cultivando to reduce local emissions and improve air quality.

“The Suncor community has legitimate concerns about pollution, and we share the goal of reducing emissions in the region. We plan to continue our discussions with Cultivando so that we can find solutions together.”

Regardless of how the report is received, Gonzalez said Cultivando and its partners will continue to work to educate community members about environmental health risks and fight for Suncor accountability.

“It’s not okay to tell us that this is only in our heads, that this isn’t real and that nothing can change that because we’re not going to accept that,” Gonzalez said. “We will continue to organize and inform people until we are heard and real change happens.”

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