Suncor’s Commerce City refinery responded to allegations that “toxic levels” of PFAS chemicals were found in Sand Creek adjacent to and downstream of the refinery.
“There is no doubt that Colorado has a major PFAS problem,” said Caitlin Miller, attorney at Earthjustice environmental non-profit organization. “Our study shows that Suncor is a significant source of the PFAS found in both Sand Creek and the South Platte.”
PFAS chemicals have been used in many consumer products since the 1940s, including non-stick cookware, water-resistant clothing, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, cosmetics, fire-fighting foams, and products that resist grease, water, and oil.
The refinery’s emergency response teams under previous ownership most likely used PFAS chemicals in the form of aqueous film-forming foam to fight fuel fires. It is not known how much foam the refinery’s previous owners used on fires or for training.
Located in an industrial area on Brighton Boulevard, approximately 3 miles north of downtown Denver, the plant is a major supplier of gasoline, diesel fuel and asphalt in Colorado. Suncor’s website says it produces about 98,000 barrels a day and contributes $2.5 billion to Colorado’s economy annually. The refinery began operating in 1931, well before any dense housing developments developed in its vicinity. Suncor acquired the refinery in 2003 and 2005.
“The communities surrounding the refinery have been exposed to disproportionate health impacts and threats from Suncor for far too long,” Miller said in a statement in April. “It is time for the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) to issue the most stringent water discharge permit possible, prohibiting Suncor from discharging any more PFAS.”
In a statement to the Denver Gazette, Suncor spokeswoman Mita Adesanya said, “We believe the presence of PFOS/PFOA at the Commerce City refinery is due to the historical use of Class B firefighting foam, which is typical of an industrial site like… ours is . We are in the process of determining a permanent water treatment system to be installed per the requirements of our water permit.”
She added, “Suncor Energy replaced the old firefighting foam with Class B ATC-AFFF foam that meets the US Environmental Protection Agency’s 2015 PFOA Stewardship Program requirements and contains no materials on Colorado’s Hazardous Constituent List. This foam is only used for emergencies and to date we have not used it. The refinery’s Emergency Response Team (ERT) uses water in their fire drills.”
Meg Parish, permit manager for the Colorado Department of Health and Environment’s Clean Water Permit Division, said Suncor is not subject to restrictions on PFAS discharges, but that the department is seeking to limit Suncor’s discharge permit, which is in the pipeline.
Parish said the limit is the result of a new rule by the Water Quality Control Commission that sets 70 parts per million for PFAS discharges as the statewide limit. She said there are 30 permits subject to that limit.
“Suncor bases its argument on outdated health recommendations, which were established in 2016 for only two types of PFAS — PFOA and PFOS,” Miller said. “Our understanding of PFAS and the health hazards posed by these toxic pollutants has changed dramatically over the past six years. The EPA itself is in the process of revising these Health Advisory Levels and we expect the EPA to lower them significantly.”
But the EPA has yet to issue new health recommendations for PFAS, and health recommendations aren’t legal limits — they’re intended to advise government agencies on what the EPA considers safe exposures.
Miller said that even with Suncor’s temporary water treatment, “contamination remains at toxic levels according to updated Toxic Substances and Diseases Agency (ATSDR) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) toxicity assessments.”
However, a review of the registry’s PFAS website by the Denver Gazette on Friday says high (not low) levels of certain PFAS (and the registry emphasizes “may” on its website) can lead to a list of health problems, including elevated cholesterol and an increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer.
The registry also says: “Currently, scientists are still learning about the health effects of exposures to mixtures of different PFAS. Additional research may change our understanding of the relationship between exposure to PFAS and human health effects.”
Because of their widespread use and environmental persistence, PFAS are found in the blood of humans and animals around the world and are present in a variety of foods and in the environment at low levels. No definitive exposure level that will cause disease in humans has been specified by the EPA.
Miller said Suncor and the state should both do more to deal with existing PFAS emissions.
“We have asked the division to strengthen Suncor’s final permit to ensure it provides the necessary protections for surface water and downstream communities, while Suncor has asked the division to weaken its final permit,” Miller said. “Suncor has opposed including more stringent limits (in) its final approval, although the EPA Health Advisory Levels that served as the basis for the division’s proposed PFAS draft approval limits are now outdated and too high to include to provide protection.”