By Trish Zornio
After a spree of highly publicized pollution violations, the Suncor refinery in Commerce City now faces at least three ongoing compliance advisories with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).
But according to local leaders, state regulators are taking too long to seek justice.
The debate over whether the state is moving quickly enough to address pollution violations is based on evidence showing the process can take years to fully investigate and remedy incidents. In the case of Suncor, the last three compliance advisories issued by CDPHE include June 1, 2023, May 25, 2022 and Aug. 3, 2021.
However, as Ian Coghill of Earthjustice argues, compliance advisories are not where the enforcement clock starts or ends as they primarily put a company on notice of investigation. For example, he said the 2021 compliance advisory by CDPHE seeks to investigate violations that date as far back as February 2019, yet it’s still open. In his book, that means the state’s enforcement process is taking more than four-and-a-half years and counting for that incident.
Asked why the state would take years to address company violations, a spokesperson for CDPHE offered the following statement:
“Enforcing air quality laws is a legal process — it takes time and requires due diligence. The length of time needed to resolve an enforcement action varies depending on the complexity of the case. To prevent a violation’s recurrence by legally requiring a facility to make changes, the division must use the enforcement process as established by state statute.”
Similar enforcement timelines by CDPHE are seen via the state’s settlement agreements with Suncor. The last three settlements with the oil-and-gas refinery occurred on March 6, 2020, June 24, 2019, and April 19, 2018, with alleged incidents dating back to at least August 2017, October 2016 and September 2015 respectively.
This puts an average of over two-and-a-half years from each incident to resolution and makes the most recent settlement more than three-and-a-half years from multiple publicly reported violations by the company since March 2020.
For CDPHE, it’s possible the ongoing investigations could lead to more fines or settlements. But Coghill and others say these delays by state regulators are a big part of the problem for residents.
“Suncor’s permit is only meaningful if violating it has consequences,” asserted Coghill. “The longer the state takes to enforce permit violations, the more Suncor will violate the permit. If Suncor knows that a violation today may not be enforced for five years, if ever, it has no incentive to take action or make investments to avoid violations; it will be cheaper to continue violating. And that means Suncor keeps pumping more pollution into North Denver and Commerce City.”
Records suggest that federal regulators can also take years to enforce environmental violations. For example, last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a $300,030 settlement with Suncor to resolve alleged toxic chemical violations. But again, local leaders are asking why it took so long given the alleged violations were found during a September 2020 inspection of the facility regarding a December 2019 incident.
A statement from an EPA spokesperson read similarly to CDPHE’s:
“EPA strives to take timely actions to address noncompliance … For more significant violations, these can take some time to resolve as we work to identify the specific actions we need the facility to take to return to compliance, mitigate the impacts of the noncompliance on the surrounding community and/or the environment, and pay an appropriate penalty. While some enforcement actions can take significant time to resolve, these settlements are meant to act as a deterrent to future non-compliance.”
Ean Tafoya of GreenLatinos said that when it comes to pollution by Suncor and delays in enforcement, the community has had enough. He also implied that enforcing the refinery’s permits had clearly proven not to be feasible while calling for full closure of the site.
“Suncor has continued to have permit violations every couple of days,” Tafoya said. “The long enforcement process that consistently results in insignificant financial settlements, which empowers Suncor’s pay-to-play attitude and therefore regular toxic releases that cumulative harm the health of the people of North Denver. It’s time to plan for a just transition, full closure and remediation of Suncor.”