Why the EPA objected to parts of Colorado’s newest Suncor air pollution permit

Last week, the US Environmental Protection Agency told Colorado air regulators to go back to the drawing board on parts of their proposed air pollution permit for the state’s only oil and gas refinery.

Suncor Energy operates the facility in Commerce City. Repeated air quality violations have made the refinery into a symbol of environmental injustice in the largely Latino, low-income suburb north of Denver.

The EPA’s formal objection demanded the state health department reconsider its decision to exempt three places where the refinery burns excess gas — a practice known as flaring — from monitoring requirements. The federal agency also recommended Colorado regulators allow the public to weigh in with comments when Suncor applies to modify its air pollution permit, which the state has allowed about 40 times since it last made major revisions to the permit in 2009 — all without input from the public.

“The objections and recommendations we are sharing today reflect EPA’s continuing focus on Clean Air Act compliance at the Suncor facility and a strong commitment to public health, engagement, and equity for nearby residents and their communities,” said EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker, a Boulder environmental lawyer and the former speaker of the Colorado House.

State health officials will have to submit a new permit

The Colorado Department of Public Health has 90 days to submit a new permit in response to the EPA’s objections, a deadline an agency spokesperson said it plans to meet. Suncor, a financial sponsor of CPR News, can continue to operate the facility while the new permit is under consideration.

The federal objection was a pleasant surprise to climate advocates like Renee Millard-Chacon. A Commerce City resident and executive director of the environmental justice group Womxn From the Mountain, Millard-Chacon said the EPA’s recommendation for more public participation is especially important.

“It proves what communities have maintained for decades: state agencies do not have the concerns of disproportionately impacted communities at the center of public health and safety,” Millard-Chacon said.

Suncor needs the permit to operate the refinery in accordance with the federal Clean Air Act. The 373-page draft version of the permit compiles everything the company must do to operate a major source of air pollution, including emission limits and monitoring requirements.


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