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'History Of Abusing This Community': Commerce City Mayor Expresses Frustration With Suncor

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (CBS4)- During a city council update regarding a recent equipment malfunction at the Suncor Energy refinery, Commerce City Mayor Benjamin Huseman told the facility's vice president he feels "like a battered spouse."

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(credit: CBS)

"You have a long-standing history of abusing this community, of professing your regret, promising to do better and never doing so," said Huseman.

The issue at the refinery happened last Thursday afternoon, when a boiler failed, resulting in "flaring and emissions exceedances," the company said on Facebook at the time. During Monday's council meeting, Donald Austin, vice president of the Commerce City refinery, told members the incident resulted in exceedances for opacity, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen sulfide, among other pollutants.

"It's frustrating because this is just another event in a long series of events that have been taking place at the Suncor refinery," Huseman said.

A company spokesperson said air monitoring was conducted in neighboring communities afterward and "the monitoring results indicated that air quality in the neighborhoods surrounding the refinery were within acceptable levels."

In a statement sent to CBS4, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment confirmed the emissions exceedances, which have since stopped.

"The department will evaluate the exceedance and take appropriate action," said CDPHE communications and outreach specialist, Andrew Bare via email.

In the recent city council meeting, Austin fielded questions from members about the steps the company is taking to prevent further incidents. Several members, including Huseman, as well as citizens in public comment, voiced their frustrations.

"We have an obligation, I can't emphasize this enough, to protect vulnerable residents, vulnerable people who may not feel that they have the power to do anything about this," said councilmember Susan Noble. "Seeing you, or not seeing you as the case may be tonight, is not the solution I'm looking for."

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Suncor March 2020 (credit: CBS)

Over the past year, Suncor has reported numerous malfunctions, including one in December 2019 when a clay-like substance rained down on neighboring communities. In March, another malfunction produced large clouds of yellow smoke.

Less than two weeks before the latter incident, CDPHE announced a $9 million settlement agreement with the company to resolve more than 100 pollution violations. Of the total, which CDPHE called "historic," $4 million would go to penalties and community projects, and $5 million would be allocated for Suncor to hire a third-party company to investigate why it's facility continues to have problems, and implement recommendations from that investigation.

"What we've done so far is to look at improving and investing in our infrastructure," Austin told city council Monday. "We've been looking at training procedures, we've also been doubling down on what we call "bad actors," and preparing and ensuring these things are corrected. There's a lot of work we have to do."

For Huseman, the apologies and explanations aren't enough.

"I think what the residents of Commerce City and the city government of Commerce City needs to know is what's the root cause that's causing this to happen over and over again," Huseman said. "They provide a resource that is greatly needed. They're the only refinery within Colorado, yet they exploit that need by having these continued upsets and continued exceedances."

Two new laws, passed during the last legislative session at the Colorado state Capitol and signed by Gov. Jared Polis, are designed to hold polluters accountable. One law increased the maximum punishments for frequent polluters, while the other requires companies to communicate with, and make data available to, the community following an incident.

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(credit: CBS)

During the council meeting, several members asked Austin when the company would implement an emergency notification service, such as reverse 911, in both English and Spanish. Austin said the company didn't have it in place yet, but on Tuesday, following an inquiry from CBS4, a spokesperson said the company will begin using an emergency notification service beginning in January 2021.

On Thursday, hours after the incident at the refinery, Commerce City held a meeting to answer questions about the recent Suncor settlement environmental projects. According to a community relations manager for Commerce City, the city is currently seeing ideas and suggestions, and the public can submit their project ideas through Sept. 3, here.

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