A year-long air monitoring project in Commerce City found there are more harmful pollutants in the air than people realize, and advocates say federal and state environmental authorities are not doing enough to regulate those emissions and protect people’s health.
Those pollutants include newly discovered radioactive particles detected in a monitoring station positioned downwind from the Suncor Energy refinery. Detlev Helmig, a scientist who runs Boulder AIR, which performs the monitoring, said the airborne radioactive particles need more study to determine their source and exactly how much is being released into the air.
“Here in the middle of an area with 2 million people we have a source of radioactivity that no one has had on their radar,” Helmig said.
Cultivando, a Commerce City nonprofit that focuses on health equity in the Latino community, held a news conference Tuesday to discuss the findings of its air monitoring study. Cultivando was chosen to monitor air quality as part of a 2020 settlement with Suncor Energy over repeated pollution violations.
The study evaluated benzene, sulfur dioxide, soot, the radioactive particles and other particulate matter released by Suncor and other businesses in Commerce City. Suncor was not the only polluter discussed during the news conference, but it is one of the largest sources of pollution in Colorado. The study found others also are responsible for dirtying the air, including two propane distributors in the area.
In an emailed statement, Suncor spokeswoman Loa Esquilin Garcia said that its air monitoring system, which has been in place since August 2021, has found that “compounds measured in multiple north Denver communities have remained below acute and chronic health-protective guideline values routinely used by state and federal public health agencies.”
The company supports all monitoring programs and will work with Cultivando and Boulder AIR, Garcia said.
“We plan to continue listening to the community and sharing information about community air quality; we are committed to doing this work in a data-driven and collaborative way,” Garcia said.
Olga Gonzalez, Cultivando’s executive director, criticized the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency for ineffective regulation and enforcement of Suncor and other polluters.
“My question to you is, do you think after watching the presentation today, that the state is upholding the requirements of the law? No,” Gonzalez said. “And after hearing the presentation, how many of you would like to live day in and day out with the pollution in the Suncor neighborhoods? Raise your hand. So then I ask you, why should our community be sacrificed for the sake of cheaper gasoline?”
For years, people who live in Commerce City and in Denver’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood have complained about asthma, nose bleeds, headaches and cancer. They blame those illnesses on Suncor and a failure of the state to enforce pollution controls.
One presenter, David Brown, who is a toxicologist from Connecticut, said the levels of pollution regulated by the federal and state governments are not an effective measurement of pollution that impacts people’s health.
Pollutants are measured individually, so Suncor could violate a threshold for hydrogen sulfide emissions but not emissions on other toxins that are monitored. But those various toxins mingle in the air and are inhaled into people’s lungs, where combined they can make people sick, Brown said.
“If you’re concerned about the health of people in the neighborhood, you should be looking at health standards,” Brown said.
Other findings included:
- The levels of pollutants in the air are highly variable and can jump to extreme levels and back down within minutes
- There are higher concentrations of pollutants, particularly benzene, at night and in the winter
- The levels of pollutants are much higher at Cultivando’s Commerce City air monitoring station than at comparison sites in Broomfield, Longmont and other locations
- Multiple pollutants are mixing in the air at the same time
- Suncor is not the only source of pollution as there are multiple companies in the neighborhoods that are producing toxic substances
- People who live in the neighborhoods experience stress and other mental health problems because of their fear of how the pollution is affecting them and their families
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