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Some Wary About Suncor Community Meetings On Air Monitoring Program: 'It's Too Late'

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (CBS4) – On Tuesday, Suncor Energy will host the first of two meetings about the upcoming implementation of its own air monitoring program in the Commerce City and North Denver area. Representatives from the company's Commerce City refinery will answer questions from the community and ask for input on how to roll the new program out.

The company says the program was born out of months of discussion with community members. Third-party company, Montrose Air Quality Services, helped develop and implement the air monitoring network and will provide near real-time air quality information to the public.

"We want this information to be neutral, to be representative, and be trusted," said Donald Austin, vice president of the Commerce City refinery.

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Suncor March 2020 (credit: CBS)

According to Austin, the program will monitor for common compounds associated with refinery emissions. Readings will be displayed in near real-time on a publicly available online dashboard.

The compounds being monitored include carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), nitrogen oxide (NO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), particulate matter (PM 2.5), and total volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

"There's going to be ten monitors. We've decided on where to place five, and we'd like the community's feedback on the other five," Austin said.

Preliminary locations for the five monitors include:

  • Birch Street and E. 72nd Avenue in Commerce City 
  • E. 62nd Avenue and Kearney Street in Commerce City 
  • Brighton Blvd. and York Street in Commerce City 
  • Columbine Street and 48th Avenue in Denver's Swansea neighborhood 
  • East 64th Avenue and Monroe Street in Commerce City 

If the VOC sensors at any of the sites detect elevated concentrations, samples will be sent to an offsite lab for further analyzing. Program managers will also have a mobile van at their disposal that can detect additional VOC compounds.

Implementation of the new program comes as the operating permit for plant 2 at the refinery is up for renewal. Site leaders are also hoping to rebuild public trust after entering a$9 million settlement agreement with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in 2020 to resolve more than 100 air pollution violations. 

Just last month, an independent, third-party investigation concluded the refinery is adequately funded and designed to meet environmental permits during steady-state operations. It also identified gaps in "site culture, staff capability and/or processes" that led to underestimating the risk associated with certain activities.  

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(credit: CBS)

"[Air monitoring] it's what we heard they'd like to know more about. So, in responding to their request, I'm hoping that will build a degree of trust," Austin told CBS4.

Steve Douglas, a Commerce City resident and former two-term city council member, said he's willing to learn about the program, but he will trust monitoring from the state and other community groups, such as Cultivando, more.

"They're being pushed to step up to the plate, but it's late. It's too late," Douglas said.

Rebecca Curry of Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, said the community's skepticism is earned.

"The trust between Suncor and neighboring communities is broken," Curry said.

Curry tells CBS4 she has questions about the programs scope, technology, and notification system, and plans to bring them up during the upcoming meeting. Overall, she's encouraged to see another air monitoring program going in.

"More monitoring is good monitoring and I hope that Suncor is proceeding with this community monitoring program in good faith and that this will be a positive step," Curry said.

Austin tells CBS4 the goal is to launch the program this summer.

The meetings will be held via Zoom at 6 p.m. MT on Tuesday, May 18 and Wednesday, May 26. Those interested in joining can register online.

Participants will have the opportunity to ask questions about the air monitoring program and hear from environmental experts from Montrose Air Quality Services.

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