Lucy Molina in front of Suncor's Commerce City refinery in Colorado. Molina's child's school went into lockdown after a problem at the refinery caused it to rain down a yellow, clay-like ash in December 2019. Suncor responded by offering free car washes. Photo courtesy of Molina
Lucy Molina taught her teenage kids how to drive so if there’s an emergency they can bring her to the hospital. That’s one of the precautions her family must take due to living within a mile of Colorado’s only major oil refinery, which in recent years has released illegally high levels of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter, according to state health authorities.
Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.
Researchers have determined that particulate matter is one of the largest environmental causes of premature death in the U.S., and even thresholds currently deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency could still be deadly, a Harvard team found last year. In 2012, the Suncor Commerce City refinery had to pay a $2.2 million fine for too-high releases of benzene, a cancer-causing compound for which the World Health Organization says there is no safe level of exposure.Since moving to the Adams Heights neighborhood of Commerce City seven years ago, which is part of an area in greater Denver with high numbers of Latino people and incomes lower than the state average, Molina said her children have experienced nosebleeds and headaches so bad it’s sometimes difficult for them to go to school. Molina herself developed vertigo and migraines.A doctor she saw about those problems informed her that the refinery could be a factor, and told her to read a Physicians for Social Responsibility report that said health impacts linked to exposure to oil and gas infrastructure can “include cancers, asthma, respiratory distress, rashes, heart problems, and mental health problems.” A study last year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that Americans living within five to 10 miles of an oil refinery are at higher risk of getting multiple cancers.
It’s risk factors like these that caused Molina to prepare her children for the worst. They may need to drive her to get medical help some day, she said, because when her dizziness becomes intense it’s hard for her to get behind the wheel. “These are the plans that we make,” Molina told VICE News. “When other communities are planning their summer, their vacation to Hawaii or Mexico, our kids are planning how to take care of their parents in case they get sick.”Molina was one of more than 150 residents of the metro Denver region who took part in public hearings this month over whether a key air permit for the refinery, which is owned by the Canadian oil company Suncor, should be renewed. If the state health and environment officials deny the permit in the weeks or months ahead, opponents say, it could eventually lead to the shutdown of an oil processing facility that exceeded pollution limits for hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide 15 times between March 27 and April 22 alone, according to a review of state data conducted by the Denver Post. “The Denver Post statement is accurate,” a Suncor spokesperson told VICE News.The Suncor refinery is also one of the state’s largest sources of greenhouse gases, releasing 949,971 tons of atmosphere-altering emissions in 2019, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“When other communities are planning their summer, our kids are planning how to take care of their parents in case they get sick.”
Approving the permit would allow the Commerce City refinery to keep operating adjacent to a zip code that RealtyTrac determined is the most polluted in the country. It’s an area where 55 percent of residents earn incomes below the poverty level and 75 percent are non-white, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. People living in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods of Globeville and Elyria Swansea, which are just south of the refinery, experience higher levels of asthma than other parts of Denver, according to a Denver Department of Environmental Health report. “The children and youth of Globeville and Elyria Swansea visit emergency rooms for asthma-related treatment more often than their counterparts in Denver as a whole,” the report said. It noted these types of disparities can be “caused by factors like differences in primary care access, disease management, and exposure to asthma triggers, including indoor and outdoor air pollution,” but did not name the refinery itself. Multiple studies, however, suggest there are links between oil refinery pollution and asthma. Despite these risk factors, the Suncor refinery has never been subject to real-time independent air monitoring for health-harming pollution. But a Commerce City nonprofit called Cultivando is in the process of setting up monitoring stations for the first time funded by fines Suncor was forced to pay by state regulators for pollution violations.
Suncor didn’t specifically address VICE News’ questions about whether the health impacts of community members such as Molina can be linked to the refinery. “We’ve invested over $1.3 billion in the refinery in upgrades, technologies, and systems that improve the reliability of our operations,” a spokesperson wrote to VICE News. “As Colorado’s only refinery and as a part of the community, we’re working to meet the energy needs of Coloradans, do our part to support the local economy, and continuing to reduce the environmental impacts of our operations.”But Suncor not only wants to be seen as a good neighbor in Colorado. The company, which is the largest producer of tar sands oil in Canada, is also portraying itself as a fighter for racial justice. Its President and CEO Mark Little published a statement last summer in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, saying the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery resulted in “a time of deep reflection for us.”Suncor has had “three company-wide conversations about racism and discrimination” since then. The company says that the first step towards fixing racial disparities is to admit that they exist. “We need to acknowledge racism because we cannot address what we are not willing to face,” Suncor’s manager of Inclusion & Diversity, Charlene Waugh, said in March.
Colorado activists say that’s rich language coming from a company that pollutes a low-income community of color. “What they need to face isn’t ‘racism’ in the abstract; it’s the real children who don’t have clean air to breathe because of Suncor,” said Kate Merlin, a climate and energy attorney with the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, which is suing Colorado air and health authorities to enforce stricter limits on the refinery’s pollution.Instead, Suncor is seeking permission to pollute even more. It has asked state air pollution control officials to increase the amount of hydrogen cyanide it’s able to release each year from the refinery from 12.8 tons to 19.9 tons. Exposure to this byproduct of processing crude oil can cause dizziness, headaches, nausea, and weakness, and at high-enough levels it can be fatal. “The state health department and the Environmental Protection Agency say Suncor’s current permitted level of hydrogen-cyanide emissions is safe, though no direct measuring or exposure studies have been done,” the air monitoring group Cultivando notes.Suncor told VICE News the refinery is getting safer all the time.“We continue to make improvements to our operations,” the Suncor spokesperson wrote. “We’ve installed automatic shutdown systems to prevent releases, a pipeline that has reduced the number of trucks accessing the refinery by 150 trucks each day, and we’ve added equipment to improve the quality of our fuels and reduce their environmental impacts.”
But community members say the company’s poor record of health violations provides little reason for reassurance. In 2019, two schools had to go into lockdown after an operational problem at the refinery caused a yellow clay-like ash to start raining down on the nearby community. “My child was in that school,” Molina said. “We were freaked out.” Though Suncor informed parents and students the release wasn’t hazardous, the company enraged locals by offering coupons for people to clean off their vehicles. “This corporation needs to be held accountable for the health impacts they’re causing in the community,” Lizeth Chacon, executive director for the racial justice group Colorado People’s Alliance, said at the time. “We are extremely upset their response was free car washes.” Because of that incident and other air violations, state public health officials last year forced the company to agree to pay a settlement of up to $9 million. But hours before a meeting took place where community members were set to discuss what that settlement money should fund, a boiler at the refinery failed and Suncor called an emergency response to contain the pollution. Fines like that don’t appear to be a huge financial deal for Suncor because its refining business is immensely profitable. “We generated nearly $1 billion of funds flow from operations as our 92 percent utilization at our refineries continued their industry leadership position,” Little said in an earnings call just days after public hearings began in Colorado this May.
State air regulators say it’s unlikely Colorado will deny the air permit that Suncor requires to operate. But if that did happen, the company might choose to sue, and could keep polluting while the litigation goes through the courts. If Suncor lost the lawsuit, however, it might decide to shut down the refinery entirely. Yet even Suncor’s financial loss could be the community’s gain. “By eliminating pollutants from the oil refinery alone, Adams County could see health and economic benefits totaling between $5.6 million and $12.7 million, and the state could reap benefits totaling between $15.7 million and $35.4 million,” a report from a research group called the Colorado Fiscal Institute concluded. “This is due to decreased mortality, hospital or emergency room visits, asthma-related events, and missed days of school and work.” Suncor refrained from specifically addressing a question about this report. Darci Martinez worked as a nurse practitioner at a school not far from the refinery last summer. On her way to work she rolled up her windows to prevent foul-smelling air from coming in. Many of the students suffered from asthma, she said. They also came from Latino areas hit disproportionately hard by the coronavirus. This might not be a coincidence, given that Harvard researchers found a link between exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality. And as if that wasn’t enough, she said, catastrophic wildfires hit the state and filled the area with a dangerous smoky haze. “There was no way to win,” she said. Suncor said it scaled back operations during this period. But Martinez said it didn’t make a difference—only turning off the refinery completely would have sufficed in her opinion. “Suncor couldn’t even shut down the stacks for two days to allow us to breathe,” Martinez said. Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.Have a story for Tipping Point? Email TippingPoint@vice.com