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Colorado lawmakers and community leaders demand state response after Suncor refinery incident

Colorado lawmakers and community leaders upset about the unexplained release this week of what Suncor Energy called a non-hazardous, clay-like “catalyst” from its oil refinery north of Denver on Thursday demanded a more aggressive state response.

Joe Amon, The Denver Post

Suncor Refinery in Commerce City. March 16, 2017.

Three lawmakers are drafting legislation that would require industrial air polluters emitting toxic gases — including hydrogen cyanide, benzene and hydrogen fluoride — to continuously monitor these emissions and create an alert system to notify schools, parents, emergency response crews, local government and nearby residents.

And leaders of the Colorado Latino Forum lashed out at Suncor for failing to provide more details on Wednesday morning’s “operational upset” at the refinery — the latest of several in recent years. That incident, described by company officials as “an opacity event,” prompted Suncor officials to advise hand-washing and offer free car washes for vehicles covered in ash.

Suncor officials announced Wednesday that the company’s tests showed air quality in surrounding neighborhoods “is within acceptable levels.” Responding to queries from The Denver Post on Thursday, a company spokeswoman said that, in addition to the excess catalyst, the refinery released carbon monoxide above limits set by the state in Suncor’s permit. “There were also sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions that were elevated but within our permit limits.”

State health officials said Thursday their initial review of air monitoring data from state-run equipment near the refinery found slightly elevated particulate air pollution that may have come from the operational upset but that overall emissions at the refinery stayed within permitted pollution limits. They said they’re seeking more monitoring data.

In a statement posted to Facebook Wednesday, Suncor officials announced they’ll conduct a full investigation after they complete immediate response activities.

This refinery just north of Denver in Commerce City produces aviation and other fuel from oil, including thick tar-sand oil imported from northern Canada, and for years has ranked among the biggest polluters of Front Range air. The air quality in metro Denver for more than a decade has failed to meet federal health standards.

“We feel more action is needed,” state Reps. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Commerce City, and Alex Valdez, D-Denver, along with Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, wrote in a letter to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment director Jill Hunsaker Ryan.

“We request that CDPHE or other appropriate state department undertake an investigation into the incident including an analysis of a sample of the ash residue. We also request that CDPHE coordinate their investigation with Adams and Denver County public health authorities,” the lawmakers wrote.

They also called for an investigation of whether Suncor’s sudden smoky pollution Wednesday  violated federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards for workers.

“We believe the communities we serve deserve access to information when these incidents occur,” the lawmakers wrote, requesting that state investigation reports including a Suncor “root cause” analysis be made public.

Suncor officials’ initial statement Wednesday said an “operational upset” led to an “opacity event” that included the release of a non-hazardous, clay-like catalyst. There was no indication workers were affected, though employees were moved to safe areas.

Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division is investigating the incident at Suncor, and is requiring the company to provide data and an activity log, director Garry Kaufman said in an emailed response to queries. State officials will determine whether Suncor violated any state laws or permit requirements and, if violations did occur, the company will be subject to “enforcement actions,” Kaufman wrote.