So much for “adulthood” in Colorado politics | NOONAN | Opinion

Paula Noonan

“Adults in the room” won the state primary, primarily on the Democratic side of the aisle, according to most pundits. That’s good news for the state’s politics and economic interests, according to these pundits. There’s a problem with the sages’ call: Aren’t adults supposed to use their common sense to predict and address public health contagions, especially when they’ve been predicted for at least a decade?

When “adults in the room” know there is contamination but do nothing to protect the public, they are no longer “adults in the room.” They are “Let’s-Stick-It-to-the-People” people. Today, “sticking with the people” is too often the default position for adults in the room, especially in the energy industry.

On July 2, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) issued another Notice of Violation (NOV) to Canadian-owned Suncor, the state’s only oil and gas refinery. According to an environmental coalition that has filed a lawsuit against the state related to Suncor’s ongoing violations, the refinery has 9,205 documented violations of various environmental regulations, consent decrees and permits since 2019. Now, the coalition can add another notice of multiple violations to its list.

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Despite fines issued by the EPA and CDPHE totaling nearly $20 million over five years, Suncor, with its roughly $6 billion in profits by 2023, continues to spew harmful pollutants into the air. Much of the previously fine money was returned to Suncor based on agreements to fix its problems. The latest notification indicates that previous violations have not been resolved and that new violations have occurred. In these cases, the harmful pollutants released from Suncor’s facilities continue to plague some of the poorest neighborhoods in the metropolitan area as well as the rest of the metropolitan area in some somewhat diluted form.

Joint EPA and CDPHE violations include 10 citations to various parts of the national Clean Air Act, permit agreements and consent decrees. CDPHE has added two more state-specific violations for a total of 12 violations. This NOV is the first step in an infringement process. The company now has 30 days to present its apologies.

The NOV specifies air quality protection requirements and how Suncor has violated these regulations. Let’s take the dangerous pollutant benzene as an example.

Benzene is generally colorless, sweet-smelling, and highly flammable. It “causes cells not to function properly,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People who inhale benzene may experience these immediate ailments: drowsiness, dizziness, fast or irregular heartbeat, headache, tremors, confusion and unconsciousness. At very high levels, death can result.

The NOV states the following about Suncor’s benzene control: “Benzene Waste Operations at Suncor: Emission units that Suncor reports as controlled… are actually uncontrolled.” The report then cites instances of uncontrolled events on their inspection days. Ultimately, EPA inspectors found at least 20 leaking benzene components at the refinery. A question for the adults in the room: is Suncor’s management intentionally misleading regulators in its reports?

EPA inspectors found visible cracks in ground concrete that allowed VOC emissions. There were cracks in the outer walls of concrete tanks that created stains, gas odors and emissions ranging from 1,800 ppm to 2,900 ppm. One crack produced emissions of 30,000 ppm. If EPA inspectors could see the cracks, so could Suncor employees.

Suncor uses carbon canisters to control emissions from Dissolved Gas Flotation (DGF) tanks. Camera inspections showed that this exhaust control method was not working. Inspectors then performed additional measures and discovered zero-emission efficiency achieved by “secondary carbon canisters.” In a related issue, Suncor does not monitor its carbon canisters frequently enough to achieve 100% contaminant capture efficiency, and therefore does not replace “breakthrough” canisters within 24 hours of breakthrough.

This review is a very abbreviated statement of Suncor’s continued violations of the Clean Air Act and state regulations.

Lawmakers introduced five bills in the 2024 session that specifically addressed improving air quality by addressing pollutant emissions. Two bills, HB24-1338 and HB24-1339, specifically addressed pollution in “disproportionately affected” communities such as Commerce City and north Denver where the refinery is located. The five bills were all killed in either the House or Senate finance or appropriations committees. The bills faced tremendous opposition from business lobby groups including the County Economic Council and the Colorado and Denver Metro Chambers of Commerce. The county’s economic county council opposed bills that their home county supported.

The cities of Boulder, Broomfield and Denver along with Adams County Commissioners and County Commissioners Acting Together supported the air quality bills.

Rope. Mike Weissman of Aurora sponsored HB24-1339, Disproportionately Affected Community Air Pollution. The bill had 92 lobbying opposition contributions to 30 lobbying support contributions. It was killed in the Husanslag.

Weissman, now seeking a seat in the Colorado Senate, won his primary despite hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent against his candidacy. But that’s the kind of money that comes into play when lawmakers who are clearly not among the “adults in the room” pitch legislation to support public health for their constituents. So much for “adulthood”.

Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislative tracking platform.

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