Advocates ask EPA to tighten chemical disaster prevention rule to rein in possible polluters, including Suncor


AURORA | More than 70 elected officials in states including Colorado are urging the Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen the chemical disaster prevention rule in order to protect communities from toxins at high-risk facilities, like the Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City.

The EPA’s “Risk Management Plan,” or RMP, rule is meant to prevent disasters at chemical facilities across the country — more than 200 exist in Colorado — but advocates say the rule is lacking.

“Chemical releases, fires, and explosions occur across the United States almost constantly,” the letter said. “In just ten years, there were over 1,500 reported chemical releases or explosions at RMP facilities nationwide. These caused over $2 billion in property damages; evacuation or ‘shelter in place’ of half a million people; over 17,000 reported injuries; and 59 reported deaths.”

In a June listening session the EPA held for revamping the rule, Colorado Latino Forum co-chair Ean Tafoya said the Commerce City refinery owned by Suncor is a prime example of why the rule should be stricter. 

“We have weird yellow smoke (from the refinery),” he said. “And the only thing we’re offered is car washes.” 

The company supplied residents around the facility — the largest oil refinery in the state —  with car washes after a blanket of yellow dust covered surfaces due to an “operational upset” in 2019. Residents and advocates called the effort an insult.

Colorado Public Radio reported that in that year alone Suncor’s two operations amassed 75 separate permit “upsets.” 

In 2020, the Candadian-owned company agreed to pay the state $9 million for air pollution violations.

Tafoya also said during his comments to the EPA that low-income and minority communities are disproportionately affected by chemical emissions from the refinery. Those neighborhoods around the refinery remain some of the more affordable places in the metroplex.

“We want to turn the page and reign in these industrial polluters,” he said.

The letter from advocates calling on the EPA to tighten the RMP rule asks the update to include hazard reduction protocols, expanding coverage to facilities in area prone to natural disaster due to climate change and requiring emergency response and incident management measures.

“We and our constituents are unwilling to continue living with the constant threat of chemical disasters that could destroy our neighborhoods, businesses, and communities, when safer chemicals and technologies exist,” the letter said. “Injuries, death and disease are not acceptable risks, and our communities are not sacrifice zones. Our lives and health should be the first – not the last – consideration when developing the new RMP rule.”

Colorado state Rep. Judy Amabile, D-Boulder, was the sole Colorado signer.