The EPA must reject Suncor’s pollution permit for Plant 2

There is a legacy of genocide in the state of Colorado. Along Sand Creek, US soldiers attacked peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho people in 1864, massacring hundreds – many of whom were women, children, or elderly. At the time, Colorado’s second territorial governor labeled Native Americans “enemies of the country” and called for citizens to kill and steal from them.

In the year 2022, the legacy of violence and racism continues here, frequently in the form of environmental injustice for the state’s most vulnerable communities. Yet, Suncor’s refinery, situated along the same Sand Creek in North Denver, continues to spew toxic pollution into Black , Indigenous, Latinx, and low-income communities that have borne the brunt of these impacts for generations.

The state has allowed Suncor to operate with an expired air permit for its Plant 2 for over 10 years. Even after Suncor’s Plant 2 permit, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment needs to address Plant 1 and Plant 3 on the western side of the facility, along with the refinery’s water permit.

This failure to get the company’s toxic emissions under control is completely unacceptable given the risk the facility poses to nearby communities. While the permit is finally moving through the renewal process, the CDPHE has not done nearly enough to protect the health of the people who live in the draft of Suncor. It is time for the Environmental Protection Agency to step in and put the health and well-being of residents first by rejecting this permit that doesn’t just maintain a status quo that is spewing pollution onto our communities but would actually allow for an increase of some pollutants including volatile organic compounds.

Suncor is a major source of volatile organic compounds which contribute to ground-level ozone. Increases in ground-level ozone and smog pollution have degraded Colorado’s air quality, particularly along the Front Range. This has contributed to regional haze increases in tribal and rural communities in Colorado as well.

In North Denver and Commerce City, many of us know someone who has died or faces a chronic condition that could be tied to the environmental racism that we endure daily. We are living in sacrifice zones so that corporations can continue to turn a profit. We do not have the opportunity to simply move elsewhere to avoid refineries or oil and gas operations. These are our homes, so we continue to push for the strongest possible paths to eliminate this harm. CDPHE, county, and city officials have failed us on Suncor’s air permit for over 10 years. It is time for the federal government to step in and end this toxic legacy by rejecting the permit before them.

The predominantly Latinx community in North Denver and Commerce City is comprised of many immigrant farmers who came here to work. These are hard-working individuals, many of whom are forced to live in fear – fear over the next decision the government will make that devastates our communities, and fear over the next environmental catastrophe that will jeopardize the health of our families.

But we have continued to stay resilient. There is a community of mothers in this region who have grown climate-conscious and are not willing to accept this for our children. There is too much at stake to allow an industry to continue to call the shots .

In December 2019, Suncor had an “operational issue,” and a yellowish chemical dust blanketed the entire region surrounding its facility. Nearby schools were forced to shelter in place as the particles came raining down. 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. A car wash, as if these pieces of property were more important than all our lives, was incredibly insulting – particularly given the ongoing history of harm Suncor has inflicted upon our communities. In 2020, the company paid $9 million as part of a settlement for its repeated air quality violations and ongoing toxic emissions. But its ability to pollute our communities continues.

Over the course of two years, Suncor self-reported 49 malfunctions in its day-to-day operations and over 500 spikes in pollutants above its permit limits. These pollutants have real impacts on our communities, and we suspect they include cancer, asthma, birth defects, heart attacks and strokes, neurological problems, and even death.

It is not enough for the state to do the bare minimum in the company’s permit renewal, while our communities continue to suffer and live in fear. We demand significant and meaningful changes to Suncor’s operations.

The current draft of the Plant 2 air permit fails to hold Suncor accountable and, instead, permits Suncor to continue its toxic legacy. It is time for the state to stop supporting toxic operations that jeopardize our futures. It is time to end the legacy of environmental violence and racism on our communities. The EPA must reject the Plant 2 air permit so our next generations can live in peace.

Shaina Oliver is state coordinator of Moms Clean Air Force/EcoMadres Colorado Chapter and a tribal member of the Navajo Nation (Díné). Lucy Molina is a health-impacted Commerce City resident and community organizer with 350 Colorado.

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