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Colorado to restrict Suncor’s discharge of dangerous “forever chemicals” into Sand Creek

Colorado issued a new, long-overdue water-pollution permit to Suncor Energy on Wednesday that restricts the amount of “forever chemicals” and other harmful pollutants the company’s Commerce City refinery can discharge into Sand Creek, an important source of water for drinking and agricultural irrigation in the state.

Officials with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment touted the new permit as more stringent than previous water-pollution permits that have regulated the oil refinery.

It’s the first time the refinery’s permit will limit the amount of  per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — also known as PFAS, or “forever chemicals” —  that are discharged into Sand Creek. The permit also will add first-time limitations on salt, arsenic and a group of compounds known as BTEX that are dumped into the water.

State officials said the permit’s conditions were crafted after countless meetings with environmental advocates and people who live near the refinery.

“It’s more restrictive than the previous permit in a couple of ways,” said Trisha Oeth, the state health department’s director of environmental health and protection. “One, it will limit the amount of pollutants that Suncor can discharge into Sand Creek and other downstream waters. There’s also a component in there to prevent future spills and seeps, so there’s a really robust inspection and maintenance requirement.”

The permit also will require Suncor to begin sending emergency notifications to the public when it spills toxic chemicals into the creek so people know the dangers of fishing or swimming in the water, Oeth said.

Leithan Slade, a spokesman for the Canadian energy company, said Suncor officials just received the new permit Wednesday morning and were reviewing it. He declined to comment further.

Environmentalists who weighed in during the state’s permitting process were poring over the permit Wednesday to learn what measures were in it. Already, some found weaknesses.

Mike Freeman, a senior attorney with EarthJustice’s Rocky Mountain Office, said the permit gives Suncor an “extraordinarily long time to comply with permit limits.”

The company won’t have to meet its PFAS limits at its main discharge point for three years.  For several other pollutants, Suncor will get more than six years to comply, Freeman said.

“That timeline is problematic because this is only a five-year permit,” he said. “In other words, this permit should expire before Suncor would have to comply with these limits.”

The water permit next will be sent to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has 90 days to approve or reject it.

Suncor is Colorado’s only refinery and it faces intense scrutiny from environmentalists and people who live in the neighborhoods that surround the Commerce City plant who are concerned about the large amounts of pollution it pumps into the air and water. That public pressure has pushed state environmental regulators to tighten the rules the refinery operates under.

In past years, Suncor has operated under two water-pollution permits, but the state consolidated those into one this time.

The new permit will regulate wastewater pollution from outfalls that discharge chemicals used in the refining process into Sand Creek. The largest discharge point, known as Outfall 20, pours up to 3.5 million gallons of water daily into the creek.

The permit also will regulate stormwater pipes where rain and snowmelt run off Suncor’s property into sewer systems and streams.Three of those stormwater pipes have been reclassified as wastewater outfalls because of the amount of pollutants they release into waterways, said Kaitlyn Beekman, a spokeswoman for the water quality control division.

Pumping PFAS into Sand Creek

Suncor’s water permits were last renewed in 2012 and are supposed to be updated every five to seven years. However, the state health department did not start the current renewal process until 2021. It took almost three years to craft the latest permit because of the extensive number of public hearings the state held and because it issued more than one request for information from Suncor, Oeth said.

“All of that is to make sure that with these more stringent requirements that we got it right and that we’re going to withstand any challenges,” she said.

The amount of PFAS that Suncor is allowed to discharge has been a growing concern within environmental circles. Sand Creek was listed in 2019 as one of Colorado’s PFAS hotspots because of the chemicals that run into the water from the refinery.

The new permit will limit Suncor’s PFAS discharges to 70 parts per trillion per day at each wastewater outfall. Suncor has until May 1, 2027, to get into compliance at Outfall 20.

But it must comply with the 70-parts-per-trillion limit at three other wastewater outfalls by May 1, 2025, Beekman said.

Suncor was given extra time to comply with the PFAS limits based on “technological feasibility and potential for needed infrastructure changes,” Beekman said. But those provisions would be included in the next renewal of the permit.

“Compliance schedules in permits require that new limits are met as soon as technically feasible,” Beekman wrote in an email to The Denver Post. “Sometimes, compliance schedules exceed the five-year term of the permit.”

Environmentalists were urging state regulators to lower the limits even further after the EPA changed its guidance on what levels of PFAS are acceptable in water.

But Oeth said the EPA’s most recent recommendations are guidelines for drinking water — not originating bodies of water such as creeks or canals — and anything more restrictive likely would not be enforceable.

When Suncor’s last permits were issued there were no regulations for PFAS, and since the state began drafting the refinery’s newest permit, the guidance on those chemicals has changed as scientists learn more.

PFAS compounds do not break down and accumulate in the human body when people drink water or eat food contaminated by them. The EPA says they can lower women’s fertility, lead to developmental delays in children and cause cancer in the kidneys, prostate and testicles, among other health problems.

Last year, the refinery repeatedly dumped amounts of PFAS into Sand Creek that would exceed the standards set in its new permit.

For example, the company’s total combined discharge for all PFAS compounds in June reached 2,675 part per trillion, according to data Suncor submitted to the state. That would have been 38 times the limit of 70 parts per trillion for all PFAS chemicals under the new permit.

While environmental advocates who had weighed in on the process were still digesting what exactly is included in the new permit, they already were critical of the PFAS standards.

Ean Tafoya, state director for GreenLatinos Colorado, said he was pleased the permit will limit PFAS discharges into Sand Creek but wondered why state health officials ignored the most updated scientific understanding of PFAS and didn’t put even tighter restrictions on the limits.

“Suncor continues to get years to comply at the expense of all of us,” Tafoya said. “The impacts to water quality and downstream communities like Thornton will remain a priority for GreenLatinos.”

Permit to regulate BETX, too

In past years, Suncor also has repeatedly exceeded its permitted levels of benzene that are discharged into Sand Creek.

After the refinery was forced to close for three months following a December 2022 deep freeze, it exceeded its permitted levels of benzene five times, in some cases pumping levels that were 40% to 80% above what was allowed.

A state investigation into those violations is ongoing, said Nicole Rowan, the state health department’s water quality control division director.

However, the new permit does not change the amount of benzene that Suncor is allowed to dump into the creek. That’s because the old permit set limits as low as the federal government allows, Rowan said.

Benzene is a chemical naturally found in crude oil and gasoline that can cause blood diseases, cancer and menstrual irregularities through long-term exposure. It is part of a group of compounds known as BTEX — benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene — and for the first time the permit will regulate those other compounds, Rowan said.

Sometimes Suncor also pollutes the Burlington Ditch, an irrigation canal that runs along its border, with benzene. The refinery is not allowed to discharge any pollutants into the ditch, but stormwater runoff and seepage from a plume of contaminated groundwater can make its way into that waterway.

The new permit requires Suncor to conduct an investigation into leaks into the ditch and could potentially require the company in the future to spend millions to line the ditch to protect the water it carries to water treatment plants and irrigation canals, Oeth said.

Protecting Burlington Ditch from contamination is crucial because multiple towns and cities draw their drinking water from it.

In 2022, the city of Thornton detected levels of PFAS in its drinking water supply that surpassed the most updated federal health advisories. While Thornton could not prove Suncor was responsible for that contamination, it joined a group that asked the state to reopen the permit for public comment. Public health officials declined.

On Wednesday, Thornton’s water department leaders said they were still reviewing the permit.

“Focus on improved operation”

The new permit includes provisions that state health officials hope will prevent Suncor from committing future violations, Oeth said.

An entire section of the permit addresses the refinery’s maintenance plans and inspection requirements.

Under the new permit, Suncor will be required to conduct inspections of its facility weekly or twice-monthly and during heavy rain or snowmelt, Oeth said. The state also will require Suncor to submit an asset management plan that tracks maintenance schedules across the refinery property so the state can make sure the refinery stays on top of repairs and upgrades to its equipment.

“There’s a real large focus on improved operation and maintenance, which we think what’s been the main cause of spills recently,” Oeth said. “That’s why we’ve really focused on permit provisions related to operation and maintenance.”

Suncor’s aging infrastructure has been a concern for regulators and environmentalists, who believe that is one reason the refinery repeatedly violates levels set by its air and water permits.

Last month, Colorado’s air pollution control division announced a $10.5 million settlement with the refinery over excessive amounts of toxic chemicals spewed into the air over three years.

That agreement included a requirement for Suncor to spend $8 million to improve its aging power supply system, something that repeatedly was the source of malfunctions that led to excessive amounts of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and hydrogen sulfide as well as visible emissions of smoke, ash and soot.

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