EPA orders Suncor to pay more than $700,000 for selling dirty gasoline

For the second time in a month, the Environmental Protection Agency has fined Suncor Energy for violations at its Commerce City oil refinery.

Suncor will pay $760,000 after it produced gasoline that did not meet federal standards for reducing ozone pollution during the summer months. The Canadian company will pay a $160,000 financial penalty for the violations, plus an additional $600,000 to fund a program to buy electric lawn equipment for local governments, schools and residents in Commerce City and north Denver, according to a consent agreement approved by the EPA’s Environmental Appeals Board.

The money for the electric-powered lawn equipment will be distributed to the community in 2024 by the Regional Air Quality Council, the agency announced Wednesday.

“We want to acknowledge right off the bat we can’t undo damage that’s done by a polluter,” said David Sabados, spokesman for the air quality council. “What we’re able to do is go into a community and improve air quality that could in some ways offset it.”

During the summer of 2021, Suncor produced more than 32 million gallons of gasoline with an average benzene concentration of 1.77 volume percent, the EPA’s news release said. The maximum allowed in summer months is 1.30 volume percent.

Benzene is a byproduct of burning oil and gasoline and is toxic to humans. Long-term exposure can cause various blood disorders, including leukemia, and reproductive problems in women. Acute, short-term exposure can cause dizziness, headaches and respiratory irritation.

Additionally, on June 22 and 23, 2022, Suncor produced nearly 1.2 million gallons of summer gasoline with a Reid Vapor Pressure of 7.9 pounds per square inch, which is above the 7.8 standard.

Reid Vapor Pressure is a measurement of gasoline volatility, and the EPA regulates the vapor pressure of gasoline sold at retail stations during the summer ozone season from June 1 to Sept. 15. The lower vapor pressure requirements are intended to reduce emissions that contribute to ground-level ozone pollution, which affects air quality and causes respiratory problems in people.

All of the gasoline that violated air quality standards was sold in Adams County, according to the consent agreement.

Suncor notified the EPA of both violations, the news release said.

Leithan Slade, a Suncor spokesman, said the company has worked to prevent similar violations from happening again.

The excess benzene was produced in just 5% of the gasoline manufactured at the Commerce City refinery, Slade said. The spokesman did not address the vapor pressure in the emailed statement.

The $600,000 for electric lawn equipment will be distributed through vouchers beginning in April to subsidize electric or manual lawnmowers, trimmers, leaf blowers and other equipment, Sabados said. Local governments can receive up to $50,0000 to purchase electric equipment.

Already, the state is working to ban the sales of most gas-powered lawn and garden equipment in the Front Range to reduce nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds that are released by gas-powered equipment. Environmentalists hope more use of electric and battery-powered equipment will help improve the region’s poor air quality.

Suncor is under pressure from the EPA for its air pollution in Commerce City, which is considered a community that is more disproportionately impacted by pollution than other neighborhoods.

Last month, the EPA forced Suncor to pay $300,030 for violations found during a 2020 safety inspection. The inspection was triggered by a 2019 malfunction at the refinery that spewed a clay-like gunk over the neighborhood.

That settlement included a payment of $240,030 to the South Adams County Fire Department to buy equipment that will help firefighters respond to chemical release accidents at the refinery.

And the EPA rejected one of Suncor’s Title V air permits after multiple environmental groups filed petitions that argued the latest air-quality permit did not do enough to limit pollution coming from the plant. Suncor continues to operate under its old permit while state regulators must rewrite the updated one.

Finally, the federal agency released a report in June that the Commerce City refinery reports more malfunctions that pollute the community than other refineries of comparable size. That study was conducted after state and federal regulators questioned whether Suncor was dirtier than its peers and what could be done to address repeated malfunctions at the refinery.

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