Suncor’s hydrogen-cyanide emissions exceeded permit last year; Colorado now weighing refinery’s request to increase limit
When Suncor Energy’s oil refinery north of Denver — which emits more than 800,000 tons of air pollution a year — broke a 12.8-ton limit for one invisible toxic gas last summer, the event went practically unnoticed.
Neither Suncor nor state health officials alerted nearby residents or county emergency managers about the July test that estimated hydrogen-cyanide emissions at a level of 14.1 tons a year.
Ten months after Suncor reported that violation, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment has not penalized the company, though officials in recent weeks said they’re still considering enforcement.
Now state officials are weighing a request from Suncor — Colorado’s only refinery and one of the state’s largest polluters — to raise its hydrogen-cyanide permit limit upward to 19.9 tons a year, giving the fossil fuels refinery a greater buffer.
The state health department and the Environmental Protection Agency say Suncor’s current permitted level of hydrogen-cyanide emissions is safe, though no direct measuring or exposure studies have been done.
The pollution from Suncor’s Commerce City refinery exemplifies the incremental environmental degradation along Colorado’s Front Range that increasingly rankles residents. For decades, people in the largely Latino lower-income north Denver neighborhoods of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea have suffered disproportionately from asthma, cancer and heart-lung ailments — possibly related to air pollution.
And critics, including U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, contend the Colorado health department’s handling of hydrogen cyanide shows a regulatory approach focused on individual pollutants that, when no federal regulations apply, lets companies dictate how much they should be permitted to pollute.
Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio, who learned about the elevated hydrogen-cyanide level from The Denver Post, said the state’s handling of this gas reveals problems that must be fixed.
“Whether it comes from the company or the health department, families in nearby neighborhoods should be notified when there is a violation of air quality standards by someone operating near their homes — especially if the violation has a potential to affect their health,” O’Dorisio said.
“It is fair to expect our state and federal health agencies to determine safe levels of air quality and make sure permitting processes promote health and safety. … Where standards are not met, we expect meaningful enforcement and corrective action.”
Hydrogen cyanide increase due to “variability”
Hydrogen cyanide, a byproduct of processing crude oil at the nation’s 135 refineries, can be deadly. It’s a colorless gas that smells faintly of almonds. In concentrated form, it’s what the Nazis used to exterminate prisoners in their death camps during World War II, and it’s been used in death-penalty executions in the United States.
Exposure at high levels leads to rapid breathing followed by convulsions, loss of consciousness and death, according to the EPA. Low-level exposure causes trouble breathing, chest pain, vomiting, headaches and enlargement of the thyroid gland.
Scientists don’t know about the cumulative impacts on people who inhale multiple pollutants.
“We feel it in our health,” said north Denver community organizer Robin Reichhardt, describing chronic coughs and congestion he, his spouse and two sons endure. “What are all these distinct gases doing? What is the cocktail doing? … It’s like being a guinea pig. The state and company don’t really know, and it is not that important to them to find out.”
Hydrogen cyanide is just one of dozens of toxic gases wafting from the stacks at Suncor’s refinery.
A review by The Denver Post of state and federal data determined the refinery also releases 886,000 tons of heat-trapping greenhouse gases annually, along with 24 tons of sulfur dioxide, 12.5 tons of hydrogen sulfide, 25 tons of ozone-forming volatile organic compounds, 4 tons of carbon monoxide, 49 tons of nitrogen oxide and 55 tons of particulates.
Some of these are regulated or limited through permits. Some are not. Hydrogen cyanide, along with cancer-causing benzene and hydrogen sulfide, rank among the most potentially harmful.
Suncor refinery operators declined to discuss in detail the pollution from their facility, one of 65 refineries in the nation that process more than 100,000 barrels a year of crude oil.
Michael Lawrence, Suncor’s media and issues management adviser, confirmed in an email that “consistent with permit processes,” the Canadian energy company “submitted a modification” after exceeding the company’s current permit limit last summer.
Suncor conducted a second test last year that showed hydrogen-cyanide pollution back down below the 12.8-ton permit limit.
The 14.1-ton result last July reflected “variability,” Lawrence said, adding that it was “not the result of increased production (of oil) or loss of efficiency” and that Suncor in 2017 emitted lower-than-average hydrogen cyanide compared with other refineries. Hydrogen-cyanide emissions “vary during operations due to the complex chemistry that occurs with the fluidized catalytic cracker unit,” he said.
There’s no federal regulatory limit on hydrogen cyanide the way there is for sulfur dioxide, ozone and particulates. DeGette, D-Denver, recently launched legislation in Congress that would compel the EPA to set a national limit and enforce it.
Metro Denver air since 2008 has flunked federal health standards. But Gov. Jared Polis has signaled an intent to reduce air pollution.
“The Polis administration is committed to improving air quality and is actively examining what more can be done with existing authority to clean our air,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. “Currently there’s neither federal nor state law limiting hydrogen-cyanide emissions. Until there is, having an enforceable permit provides transparency for the neighborhoods, accountability because Suncor has to comply to a limit, and a mechanism for enforcement if Suncor violates the permit.”
Enforcement occurs on two levels, said Garry Kaufman, director of the Colorado health department’s Air Pollution Control Division.
First, state health officials respond immediately and work to bring facilities back into compliance and require additional testing, which he said happened at Suncor last year. That’s followed by “a comprehensive annual review of the total compliance of the largest facilities.”
“This comprehensive enforcement process takes more time, but is critical for finding, correcting and prosecuting violations,” Kaufman said in a statement. “When large penalties can be at stake, we want to be thorough and careful to bring the best cases and ensure fairness. As our record shows, this has led to large penalties and compliance fixes from Suncor.”
A history of air quality issues
One of Colorado’s largest and most technically complex sources of pollution, the Suncor refinery sits on an 80-year-old industrial site near the confluence of Sand Creek and the South Platte River.
A refinery was built there in 1940, historical records show. A 1978 explosion killed three people, caused $10 million in damages, launched an orange fireball over the city and registered 1.5 on the Richter scale.
In 2003, Suncor bought the refinery from ConocoPhillips in a $150 million deal. Over the past 13 years, Suncor has spent $1.6 billion on modernization and upgrades.
Yet the refinery repeatedly has had problems. State air quality regulators have begun at least seven cases against Suncor in the last six years seeking penalties for emissions of sulfur dioxide and other toxic gases, and they’ve ordered Suncor to correct deficiencies.
In 2012, state regulators fined Suncor $2.2 million for violations related to benzene air pollution above limits from the refinery. In 2015, state regulators ordered Suncor to fix other pollution problems detected in 2013 and 2014. Suncor at one point negotiated a deal to avoid admitting law violations in return for paying a $214,050 administrative penalty.
Colorado public health officials still are looking into possible enforcement of Suncor’s existing 12.8-ton permit limit and the company’s request to raise that limit, Kaufman said.
“CDPHE has not approved an increase in the hydrogen-cyanide limit to 19 tons, and we will not approve such an increase unless the science shows that emissions at that level do not pose a threat to public health,” he said in an interview.
“I understand the concerns” residents have raised about hydrogen cyanide, Kaufman added. “But it is not just the substance. It is also the concentration.”
A few years ago, Suncor asked state health officials to include hydrogen cyanide pollution in the company’s operating permit because, under exemptions in federal environmental laws, this lets a company avoid reporting emissions to the EPA, a review of state documents found.
In February 2018, Colorado officials signed off on Suncor’s requested state permit limit of 12.8 tons, higher than the 8.5 tons the energy company previously had reported to the EPA. Neighborhood groups objected, filing a legal appeal asking the EPA to intervene, but agency administrator Andrew Wheeler rejected that request in January.
The refinery is motivated “to improve transparency” and “we believe we are more transparent in reporting” pollution to Colorado officials “by having it in the permit,” Suncor’s Lawrence said in an email. If the EPA and state officials prefer, he said, the company will resume “the former way” of reporting hydrogen cyanide to federal agencies.
“The air doesn’t stop here”
North Denver residents for years have raised concerns about refinery air pollution, which includes the multiple toxic gases as well as heat-trapping carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — greenhouse gases that accelerate global warming, leading to hotter days, more extreme storms, worsening fires and changing water flows.
Suncor and public health officials “try to keep everything in secret,” said Sandra Ruiz-Parrilla, president of a neighborhood group and mother of three, who drops off her third-grade daughter at a school just downwind of the refinery.
“This should be an issue for the whole city because the gas does not stop here,” she said. “The air doesn’t stop here. The wind doesn’t stop here. It blows over the city. The whole city needs to know what’s going on. It doesn’t just affect us.”
East of the refinery, people in Commerce City and unincorporated Adams County say they, too, are aware that toxic gases flow out of Suncor’s stacks. They say it irks them and that they’re skeptical of government declarations deeming health risks acceptable.
“You know it is there. You know it is bad,” said Paul Solano, who is running to be mayor of Commerce City with an intent to reduce air pollution. “No federal response. No state response. No municipal response. We have children playing outside breathing this hydrogen-cyanide gas. Something needs to be done.”
North Denver leaders turned to EarthJustice attorney Joel Minor, who consulted with a state health department whistle-blower in trying to gather facts.
“It’s alarming that Suncor is emitting hydrogen cyanide above its permitted level because the refinery is located next to predominantly Latino communities in north Denver and Commerce City that already suffer negative health outcomes because they bear a disproportionate burden of pollution from numerous sources,” Minor said.
Extrapolating a permitted level
The EPA in 2015, compelled by a lawsuit, looked at the hydrogen cyanide problem nationwide. Agency officials settled on a method of estimating hydrogen cyanide concentrations in air using carbon monoxide as a surrogate. If companies meet a carbon monoxide air pollution limit of 500 parts per million, then hydrogen cyanide is presumed to be acceptable.
“We predicted what HCN (hydrogen cyanide) concentrations would be outside of the refineries and we concluded that the health risk from HCN emissions was acceptable,” EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones told The Post.
States including Colorado use this extrapolation method, though air quality regulators in Southern California now require direct measuring of hydrogen cyanide.
When Suncor last year requested the 12.8-ton permit limit, state health officials say they used a computer model that factors in topography and wind along with tests for carbon monoxide to calculate that the air people breath around the refinery would be relatively safe.
They relied on the EPA “reference level” for chronic exposure to hydrogen cyanide — 0.7 parts per billion — above which the gas could cause harm, Kaufman said. The state’s modeling estimated hydrogen cyanide air concentrations around Suncor would not exceed 0.03 ppb if the refinery emitted 12.8 tons per year, he said.
State air pollution officials “have made some refinements to the model,” he said, and it will be used to estimate air concentrations at Suncor’s new requested hydrogen cyanide limit of 19.9 tons per year.
In Congress, DeGette’s legislation would force the EPA to set a national hydrogen cyanide regulatory limit based on science and health studies. DeGette also is pressing the EPA — she runs an oversight panel — to figure out for states how much hydrogen cyanide emitted from refinery stacks is likely to lead to too much in the air people breathe. Refinery operators would have to notify people in neighborhoods in case of emergency releases.
Colorado public health officials have balked at setting a state limit on hydrogen cyanide pollution, DeGette said in an interview.
“What they did was they just asked Suncor how much they were emitting. They added that into the permit with a buffer and made a state limit. They did that without any scientific analysis,” she said. “We cannot just have the company saying, ‘This is how much we are emitting,’ and then say, ‘OK, that is how much you can emit.’ We need to find out a limit that is safe.”
Kaufman, the state’s air pollution control director, said letting companies measure their pollution and then incorporating that level with a buffer into permits is not standard practice.
“In the cases where there is no regulatory limit, we allow that,” he said. “That is the exception rather than the rule.”
“An incredibly poisonous gas”
At the refinery, hydrogen cyanide comes from fluid catalytic cracking units, which process heavy crude oils, that began operating in 1971, EPA records show.
“They are over their limit. I recommended enforcement on it,” said Jeremy Murtaugh, a former state air quality compliance official who inspected the refinery last year after company testing in July showed elevated emissions. Murtaugh resigned this year, citing concerns about weak enforcement and a culture of catering to industrial polluters.
He called hydrogen cyanide “an incredibly poisonous gas.” But state enforcement officials told him they “did not want to move forward” until they received clearance from superiors, he said.
During his visit at the refinery, Murtaugh said he asked Suncor officials for an explanation for the increased emissions.
“I wanted them to explain what processes at the plant increased or decrease emissions,” he said. “The response I got from them was that they did not know anything about cyanide emissions and they didn’t have any idea of relationships to their operating scenarios.”
“Living up here, it knocks years off your life,” said Armando Payan, 62, sitting on his Globeville patio just north of Interstate 70 recently. He pointed to his mother’s heart attack and the recent death of a nephew at age 49 of a heart attack as possible evidence.
“They allow all these toxics,” Payan said. “It is toxic out here. My wife, she wanted to move out of here and go to Texas. … I can’t just turn my back. … Why don’t we have an environmental plan as part of our neighborhood plan?”
Payan worked with Denver Public Schools officials to scrub down the Garden Place Elementary School last summer using a titanium dioxide material. Payan also scrubbed his home to remove as many contaminants as possible, he said.
“But cyanide gas? It is death.”