Diana DeGette moves to regulate Suncor Energy pollutants over north Denver
With the smokestacks of a large Suncor Energy oil refinery behind her, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette announced Tuesday that she will soon introduce legislation requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to set strict emissions standards for hydrogen cyanide, a pollutant that is pumped out of the refinery and into the air above Denver daily.
“One of our government’s most important responsibilities is protecting the health and welfare of our communities. In this case, the federal government and the state government have failed to meet those obligations,” said the Denver Democrat, raising her voice above the sound of passing trains.
Without federal limits on hydrogen cyanide, Suncor and other companies have freely polluted areas like Elyria Swansea, a working-class neighborhood just south of the refinery, she said. DeGette called it “ludicrous” and “unbelievable” that no federal standards exist.
Hydrogen cyanide is a colorless gas with a smell that reminds many of almonds. High exposure can cause convulsions and loss of consciousness. Lower levels of exposure are more common and have been linked to breathing troubles and headaches, among other health problems.
At the Commerce City refinery, hydrogen cyanide is used in crude oil processing and emitted from a fuel catalytic cracking unit. When regulating oil refineries, the EPA has primarily focused on other pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, rather than hydrogen cyanide. The DeGette legislation would force the EPA to study the matter and develop a limit in accordance with sound science.
“Suncor strives for continuous improvements across our business, including reducing emissions,” said Michael Lawrence, a Suncor spokesman. “In terms of process, Suncor works with the appropriate regulatory agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, to ensure the refinery is properly permitted. Suncor also works closely with these agencies when there are regulatory changes that we must address.”
State records released last year show the Suncor refinery releases 8.5 tons of hydrogen cyanide annually. Last January, the CDPHE changed the company’s air pollution permit and set a higher emissions limit of 12.8 tons a year.
“Since there was no EPA standard set,” DeGette said, “Suncor was able to simply tell the state how much it intended to pump into the air each year, adding a little more to give themselves a buffer.”
Community groups have petitioned the EPA to limit emissions from the refinery, which employs about 420 people, according to Lawrence.
“Suncor aims to operate our facility safely, with an unwavering commitment to the value of safety above all else. This also applies to the safety of our employees and the community,” he said.
Hydrogen cyanide has a grisly history. It was used by France as a chemical weapon in World War I, by Nazi Germany in extermination camps, and by the United States in gas chamber executions.
The neighborhoods of north Denver are in DeGette’s congressional district but the refinery is not. DeGette said she has not yet spoken to Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a fellow Democrat who represents Commerce City, but expects he and many others in Congress will back the bill. Perlmutter’s spokeswoman said Tuesday that he is waiting for the legislation to be introduced before deciding.