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'So Much More Than Just Pollution': Air Monitoring Project Around Suncor Plant Meant To Empower Community

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (CBS4) - After years of community concern over air pollution, several new air monitoring efforts are in the works around the Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City. One those programs is run by the company, and another by a Latina-led nonprofit.

For 21 years, Margot Gonzales has proudly called Commerce City home. It's where she's grown her family, built a career and wants to stay.

"I've really liked Commerce City because it feels like a very safe and very quiet place," Gonzales said through a translator.

Margot Gonzales
(credit: CBS)

But the quiet hum of the air cleaner in her home exemplifies a long lingering concern. Her biggest questions involve the nearby Suncor oil refinery, a major polluter, and in 2019, the source of a yellow clay like substance falling from the sky.

"My doubt is that we don't have something that tells us what it is they're working on," Gonzales said. "What are the pollutants?"

Last year, Suncor reached a settlement with the state to resolve more than 100 air pollution violations. Of the $9 million agreed, more than $2 million was slated for community projects.

Much of that is now in the hands of Cultivando, a nonprofit run by Latina women in Commerce City.

"It shouldn't have gotten here. We shouldn't have to do this work," said Aracely Navarro, director of environmental justice programs for Cultivando.

Aracely Navarro
Aracely Navarro (credit: CBS)

This summer the group shared its plans with the community at an event called EcoFiesta 2021. Among several projects in the works is an air monitoring program that's independent of both Suncor and the state, which does its own monitoring.

"For years, decades, they've been complaining and telling the state about poor air quality, poor water quality, and nothing has happened, so this is a time where they're calling for other people in community to really do this work," Navarro said. "Having the data, having the science is good, but it's also really important where it's coming from and who's doing it."

Navarro is tasked with making the program a reality. She tells CBS4 it will include a stationary and mobile monitor, which send data to a bilingual website. Locations of both monitors have yet to be decided, but the community will have a say.

The nonprofit also hopes to give out at-home monitors to interested community members as well.

"I think our bigger picture is really to educate community on environmental racism and environmental justice, and that incorporates so much more than just one source of pollution," Navarro said.

In August, Suncor debuted its own air monitoring program, run by third party Montrose Air Quality Services. In an interview with CBS4 before the program went live, Donald Austin, vice president of the Commerce Cite refinery, said he wanted the data from the monitors "to be neutral, to be representative, and be trusted."

SUNCOR STARTS UP 6PKG.transfer_frame_0
(credit: CBS)

The program currently includes 8 stationary monitors and a mobile van capable of reading 70 different VOC compounds. All information is fed in near real-time to an online dashboard.

"This is going to provide the community with data that no other community in the nation has available to them," said Austin Heitman, project manager with Montrose Air Quality Services.

Which program the community puts its trust in remains to be seen, though many community members remain skeptical of any effort by the refinery. Margot Gonzales said she'll likely turn to Cultivando's site when it's ready.

"I'm confident that it can be better and that they can help us," she said.

Moving forward, Navarro said the push to have better air monitoring is not just about Suncor. It's instead about empowering community with knowledge.

"This is so much more than just Suncor; it's so much more than just pollution," Navarro said. "It's really about justice for our communities. It's about saving lives for us."

According to Navarro, the stationary and mobile monitors will be ready by the end of the year. The nonprofit plans on distributing some home-based monitors in November or December.

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