So much for “adulthood” in Colorado politics | NOONAN | Opinion
So much for “adulthood” in Colorado politics | NOONAN | Opinion


Paula Noonan

The “adults in the room” won the state’s primary, especially on the Democratic side, most experts say. That’s good news for the state’s political and economic interests, these experts say. But there’s a problem with the experts’ admonition: Shouldn’t adults use their common sense to predict and remedy health ills, especially when they’ve been predictable for at least a decade?

If the “adults in the room” know there is contamination but do nothing to protect the public, they are no longer “adults in the room.” They are people who want to “show the people.” Today, “show the people” is all too often the default attitude of the adults in the room, especially in the energy industry.

On July 2, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) issued another Notice of Violation (NOV) to Canadian company Suncor, the state’s only oil and gas refinery. According to an environmental coalition that filed suit against the state over Suncor’s ongoing violations, the refinery has 9,205 documented instances of violations of various environmental regulations, settlements and permits since 2019. Now, the coalition can add another notice of multiple violations to its list.

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Despite fines imposed by the EPA and CDPHE, totaling nearly $20 million over five years, Suncor, which has a profit of about $6 billion in 2023, continues to emit harmful pollutants into the air. Much of the previous fines were refunded to Suncor under agreements to fix its problems. The latest ruling suggests that previous violations have not been addressed and new violations have arisen. In these cases, the harmful pollutants emitted by Suncor’s facilities continue to plague some of the metropolitan area’s poorest neighborhoods and, in a slightly mitigated form, the rest of the metro area.

Joint EPA and CDPHE violations include 10 references to various sections of the national Clean Air Act, permit agreements, and settlement agreements. CDPHE added two more state-specific violations, for a total of 12 violations. This NOV is the first step in a violation resolution process. The company now has 30 days to present its apologies.

The NOV sets out requirements for air quality protection and explains how Suncor violated those regulations. Let’s take the dangerous pollutant benzene as an example.

Benzene is generally colorless, has a sweet smell, and is highly flammable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it “causes cells to not function properly.” People who inhale benzene may experience the following immediate symptoms: drowsiness, dizziness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, headache, tremors, confusion, and loss of consciousness. In very high concentrations, it can cause death.

The NOV states of Suncor’s benzene control: “Benzene waste operations at Suncor: Emission units that Suncor reports as controlled… are actually uncontrolled.” The report then cites instances of uncontrolled events on inspection days. Ultimately, EPA inspectors found at least 20 benzene components leaking at the refinery. A question for the adults in the room: Is Suncor management intentionally misleading regulators in its reports?

EPA inspectors discovered visible cracks in the concrete that could release volatile organic compounds (VOCs). There were cracks in the exterior walls of the concrete tanks that caused stains, gas odors, and emissions of 1,800 ppm to 2,900 ppm. One crack resulted in emissions of 30,000 ppm. If EPA inspectors could see the cracks, Suncor employees certainly could, too.

Suncor uses carbon canisters to control emissions from the dissolved gas flotation (DGF) plant tanks. Camera inspections showed that this method of emissions control was not working. Inspectors then implemented additional measures and discovered that “secondary carbon canisters” achieved zero emissions efficiency. A related problem is that Suncor does not monitor its carbon canisters frequently enough to achieve 100 percent contaminant capture efficiency and therefore does not replace “breakthrough canisters” within 24 hours of breakthroughs occurring.

This report is a highly abridged account of Suncor’s ongoing violations of the Clean Air Act and government regulations.

In the 2024 session, lawmakers introduced five bills specifically addressing improving air quality by tackling pollutant emissions. Two bills, HB24-1338 and HB24-1339, specifically addressed pollution in “disproportionately affected” communities such as Commerce City and north Denver, where the refinery is located. The five bills were all defeated in either the House or Senate Finance or Budget committees. The bills faced tremendous opposition from business lobbying groups, including county business councils and the Colorado and Denver metropolitan chambers of commerce. County business councils opposed bills that supported their home counties.

The cities of Boulder, Broomfield and Denver, along with the Adams County Commissioners and County Commissioners Acting Together, supported the air quality bills.

Representative Mike Weissman of Aurora sponsored the bill, HB24-1339, “Disproportionately Impacted Community Air Pollution.” The bill had 92 lobbyists opposing it and 30 lobbyists supporting it. It was defeated in the House Budget Committee.

Weissman, who is now seeking a seat in the Colorado Senate, won his primary despite hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent against his candidacy. But that kind of money comes into play when lawmakers who are obviously not the “adults in the room” introduce legislation to support the public health of their constituents. So much for “adulting.”

Paula Noonan is the owner of Colorado Capitol Watch, the leading platform for tracking the state’s legislature.

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