Opinion: Suncor refinery owners must be held more accountable for what they are doing to our neighborhoods

In Colorado, there are two standards: one for corporate polluters and one for the rest of us. The Suncor refinery has been allowed to operate with expired permits and exceed its pollution limits for years, but if any of us drove with expired permits for a few weeks, we would face swift penalties.

Real accountability from Commerce City’s bad neighbor is long overdue.

I live in the shadow of the Suncor refinery and spend most days worrying about the health of my family and loved ones. It is outrageous that Suncor has been allowed to continue operating in my community despite reprimands for its numerous pollution violations and repeated safety concerns. There is no justice in this case – only platitudes and public relations statements.

If the state won’t take meaningful action to hold Suncor accountable, the people must. That’s why environmental justice and conservation groups recently filed a notice of intent to sue the Suncor refinery for its repeated violations of the Clean Air Act. Through the lawsuit, the groups will essentially be taking on the role of regulator to demand true accountability and redress for Suncor’s extensive violations.

Earlier this year, the state fined Suncor a paltry $2.5 million for the refinery’s repeated air pollution violations in 2019, 2020 and 2021, and demanded another $8 million for plant improvements. While it was surprising that the refinery was fined, it wasn’t enough of a deterrent for a multibillion-dollar company like Suncor.

While I am pleased that the agencies this week sent Suncor a notice of violation for many of its violations, communities still need to see if they are meeting their obligations to hold Suncor accountable.

According to Suncor’s own reporting, it has exceeded or violated emissions requirements more than 1,000 times during the five-year period between 2019 and 2024. The notice of intent from environmental justice and conservation groups alleges that these emissions excesses amount to more than 9,000 days of violations. Under the Clean Air Act, civil penalties for these violations could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Suncor has been a threat to our community for years. In addition to exceeding its air pollution limits, the refinery has repeatedly dumped carcinogenic benzene into Sand Creek (well above the permitted limits) and has also forced us into shelters after releasing clouds of yellow catalyst.

While many in my community, including myself, ultimately want this facility gone and a just transition for workers, we at least deserve to see the refinery comply with pollution limits and to have the damage already done remedied. While the lawsuit these groups plan to file won’t shut down Suncor, it could be a significant step toward holding them accountable.

Communities surrounding the refinery have faced significant health impacts from pollution for years. The northern Denver region is one of the most polluted ZIP codes in the country. Residents have higher rates of asthma and asthma-related emergency room visits than people in the rest of the city. And those of us who aren’t already sick are forced to live in fear of the potential impacts on ourselves and our families.

This is no way to live: those in power treat our communities as if they were disposable.

Justice is not charity. A community should not have to resort to a lawsuit to obtain the protections it should already receive from federal and state agencies, protections that the Clean Air Act requires.

Suncor has been allowed to pollute our community with little to no repercussions for far too long. We hope this lawsuit will bring much-needed relief to our community and serve as a real deterrent to the company continuing to exceed its pollution limits. If state or federal agencies do not take action to hold Suncor accountable, we will.

Lucy Molina, who lives in Commerce City, is an impacted resident in the Suncor area and a community organizer for 350 Colorado.

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