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EPA is committed to area environment

By KC Becker

Guest Commentary

The Environmental Protection Agency’s recent Clean Air Act fuels settlement with the Suncor refinery generated questions about the settlement and the EPA’s broader efforts to improve environmental conditions at the facility and in nearby communities in Commerce City and north Denver. I appreciate this opportunity to clarify and explain the EPA’s commitment to these concerns.

The EPA’s September settlement with Suncor focused on gasoline produced and distributed by the refinery across the Front Range, not emissions from the facility. Some of the fuel produced by Suncor in 2021 and 2022 exceeded requirements limiting the benzene content and the volatility of the fuel. The distribution and use of this fuel led to higher emissions of pollutants in a large area that does not meet Clean Air Act standards for ozone.

As part of the settlement, in addition to paying a penalty, Suncor voluntarily agreed to spend $600,000 to replace older gasoline and diesel-powered lawn equipment with less-polluting electric-powered equipment in the larger area impacted by the fuel violations. This part of the agreement is known as a Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP). To be acceptable as an EPA settlement component, SEPs must demonstrate a connection between the project and the underlying violations. Suncor chose to implement this SEP through an existing successful program run by the Denver Regional Air Quality Council. The project will reduce benzene and other chemical compounds that contribute to localized, neighborhood pollution and the larger Denver-area ozone problem.

The EPA understands that community concerns also extend to broader questions, including: What is EPA’s strategy for Suncor, and what are the agency’s goals to improve conditions in nearby neighborhoods? In simplest terms, the EPA strategy is to devote maximum attention to all actions we can take to improve compliance and reduce emissions from the refinery. Through this level of attention, we expect to see improvements.

Our partnership with the state on this effort is critical. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) has primary responsibility for implementing and enforcing most environmental laws in the state, with the EPA’s oversight and assistance. We have invested heavily in this partnership, which involves regular, strategic interaction on all levels of compliance at Suncor.

The EPA and CDPHE have conducted inspections and compliance evaluations at the Suncor refinery under air, water, waste, emergency planning and toxics programs and have taken several enforcement actions. These efforts take time. The process from completing an inspection to realizing facility improvements requires evaluating complex data and information and, when violations are found, detailing and resolving noncompliance through settlements or legal actions that include penalties, corrective actions and mitigation measures consistent with the law. Each action is a step toward improving conditions. Our success over time will be measured in control and process improvements; permit compliance; and reduced violations, incidents and emissions at the refinery.

The health of Commerce City and north Denver communities is not just about one facility. The EPA’s recent agreement with CDPHE on Advancing Environmental Justice through Enforcement and Compliance Assurance provides a framework for a broader effort to expand public engagement and address compliance across all facilities and pollution sources in priority locations. As a result, the EPA and CDPHE have completed inspections and evaluations at dozens of facilities in the area, many of which have led to settlements and control measures. Our goal is to move all regulated sources toward improved compliance. This is not a one-time effort; we must seek continuous improvements.

Community health is also about more than just enforcement and compliance. The EPA has identified Commerce City and North Denver as an Environmental Justice priority area. As a result of unprecedented funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, EPA program teams are offering grants for voluntary and community-based efforts that address health and the environment with a focus on these priority areas. These include funding for projects to remove lead hazards in homes, clean up and revitalize contaminated properties, develop renewable energy sources, create new parks and greenspace, increase access to healthy foods, weatherize homes and reduce utility bills. Just last month, the EPA announced $1.5 million for new projects in Commerce City and north Denver neighborhoods, the latest of many investments made and to come.

The EPA is working hard to address the environmental and health challenges that the residents of Commerce City and north Denver are facing. No action — including this most recent settlement — will address all concerns. Our attention is focused on meaningful and lasting improvements across a range of authorities, solutions and partnerships. I look forward to these efforts making these communities measurably healthier places to live, work and play as we move forward together.

KC Becker is the administrator for EPA’s Mountains and Plains Region.

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