COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (CBS4) - The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced Friday it has reached a $9 million settlement agreement with Suncor Energy to resolve more than 100 air pollution violations committed by the company's Commerce City oil refinery. Officials are calling the settlement "historic," as it is the largest penalty against a single facility for air pollution violations in the state's history.
According to a news release from the CDPHE, "Suncor violated emissions limits for volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter."
The settlement also resolves an incident in December 2019, when a yellow clay-like substance was released from nearby Suncor Energy, causing nearby schools to lock down.
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The $9 million agreement is made up of $4 million for penalties and community projects, and $5 million for Suncor to hire a third-party company to investigate why it's facility continues to have problems, and implement recommendations from that investigation.
"This amount is more than the cumulative penalties that have been assessed against the refinery in the last decade," said Gary Coffman with CDPHE. "The large nature of these penalties reflects the seriousness of the violations."
CDPHE is allowed by law to fine a maximum of $15,000 per violation, however CDPHE said it did give Suncor a "bit of a discount" and Suncor was not fined the maximum amount in total, because it has cooperated with the state and self-reported some violations.
CDPHE said it's "much less of a discount than they've received in the past, because they weren't starting on a clean slate."
The vice president of Suncor's Commerce City location, Donald Austin, said the facility's record these last few years is something he's "not proud of."
"I apologize for the past and I can commit to do better," Austin told CBS4 Investigator Kati Weis over the phone Friday. "We take the recent performance to heart."
While the community environmental programs have not yet been determined, state officials said those improvements can include a host of benefits to the community, including air filtration systems in homes or schools, and improvements to Suncor's equipment to prevent future leaks. CDPHE said community members will be included in the decision-making process for those programs, which will be required to be developed within the next few months.
As part of the settlement, Suncor will also be required to improve its communication system with the community, and CDPHE said Suncor must work with community members to "develop improved channels for rapid messaging, multi-lingual communication, and other issues."
In the meantime, CDPHE said Suncor has 30 days to pay nearly $1.5 million in cash penalties.
Austin said Suncor is also in the process of scouting a company to conduct an investigation into its facility's weaknesses. Austin said he's hoping for the investigation to begin in a few months.
"What we can do is work out the reasons for what went wrong, and we've been doing that," Austin said. "By doing a root cause analysis of these incidents, we learn from it."
CDPHE said it will review every step of Suncor's investigation to ensure it is conducted fairly.
According to a company spokesperson, the Commerce City refinery, which employs about 500 employees, supplies about a third of Colorado's gasoline demand and about half of the state's diesel demand.
"We supply much of the jet fuel for Denver International Airport, and we are the state's largest asphalt supplier," the spokesperson said via email.
Suncor says its operations indirectly support approximately 5,000 additional jobs, creating an overall economic impact estimated by the company at about $2.5 billion annually.
To read the entire settlement agreement, click here.
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