Suncor installs new shutdown systems at Commerce City refinery

Suncor Energy has installed new automated shutdown systems inside two gasoline-producing plants at its Commerce City refinery to prevent a repeat of a 2019 malfunction that blasted a clay-like substance into the surrounding neighborhood, forcing two schools to shelter in place while officials figured out what exactly was landing on homes and cars in the area.

That malfunction, labeled an “opacity event” by Suncor, further damaged an already fractured relationship between the refinery and its Commerce City neighbors, mostly Latino people. After the event, Suncor advised residents to wash their hands and offered free car washes. The nearby residents were furious at that response.

The Suncor vice president who oversees the Commerce City refinery on Thursday said the company’s $12 million investment in the automatic shutoff systems will stop similar malfunctions from happening in the future.

“I understand the anger and the mistrust people have with Suncor because of that,” Donald Austin, the vice president, said. “This project will ensure it won’t happen again.”

On Dec. 11, 2019, workers at Suncor’s Plant Two poured too much torch oil into a fluidized catalytic cracker unit, which makes gasoline that fuels cars and standard trucks. When the system overheated the oil flow reversed directions, sending a plume of the clay-and-sand mixture — used as a catalyst to refine oil into gasoline — into the air.

“The system we installed detects build-up and pressure and closes valves before the reversal can happen,” Austin said.

Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division determined that Suncor released excessive amounts of carbon monoxide into the air that day because of the malfunction, according to a 2020 consent order between the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the company. Carbon monoxide is a clear, odorless gas that when released in large amounts outdoors can cause problems for people with pre-existing heart conditions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We had started this unit up many, many times and never experienced this,” Austin said. “We were vulnerable to this for a very long time and it hadn’t happened. But after it happened we realized the system we had wasn’t good enough and we added layers.”

The new shutdown system will reduce the amount of carbon monoxide released should another malfunction happen, Austin said. But it won’t completely eliminate the gas because it’s constantly released at the refinery.

An investigation into the December 2019 incident found Suncor workers did not have sufficient guidance as to how much torch oil to use and workers did not know who was supposed to monitor those torch oil levels, the 2020 consent order said. There also was confusion and miscommunication over whether to shut the system down, the order said.

Suncor workers needed to manually stop the plant from running back in 2019, Austin said.

In March 2020, Suncor had another malfunction of a fluidized catalytic cracker unit that sent a burst of hydrogen sulfide and an opaque yellow substance into the air.

The refinery is one of Colorado’s largest polluters and routinely releases hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide and benzene into the air. Those emissions are allowed under the plant’s federal permit, but it has a record of violating approved levels. The new shutdown system will not eliminate those emissions.

The new system uses computers and gauges to monitor pressure, oil flow and temperature within the plant’s pipes. If those gauges detect levels that are out of balance, the computer can trigger an automatic shut-off.

Multiple hydraulic pressure devices and valves are in place to block oil and the clay-and-sand mixture from escaping the pipes and stacks. The amounts of carbon monoxide that escape will be limited. The new system should be faster and more reliable than what previously was in place, Austin said.

Suncor installed a similar automated shutdown system at its Plant 1 gas-making unit last summer, Austin said.

The 2020 consent decree between Suncor and the state’s health department came after a series of malfunctions and reports of excess emissions. That agreement made multiple recommendations for Suncor to follow to reduce harmful emissions and to improve its relationship with the community, including installing the automated shutdown system.

Austin said the refinery already was installing the automated shutdown systems when the consent decree was signed. A consulting company hired because of the consent decree signed off on the plan, he said.

The consent order put a $5 million cap on what Suncor would be required to spend to make improvements, said Alexandra Schluntz, an attorney with EarthJustice. Because the new automated shutdown systems were so expensive, Suncor won’t be required to follow through with other recommendations in the 2020 consent decree, she said.

Still, the new system is a welcomed improvement, Schluntz said.

Beyond the gas-making units, “there are a lot of other problems at the plant,” she said. “We are glad to see that it’s in place.”

Environmentalists hope to address those other problems in the coming months as Suncor’s two air permits are under review by the EPA. Three public hearings on a permit for Suncor’s Plant 1 and Plant 3 are scheduled for July 9 and 13. For more information, including the forms needed to provide comment, visit: tinyurl.com/5cv82h2b.

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