Sun­cor re­fin­ery spewed toxic gases over Den­ver

Power loss blamed for sec­ond emis­sions event in 5 months.

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Bruce Fin­ley

Mal­func­tions after a power out­age at the Sun­cor En­ergy oil re­fin­ery just north of Den­ver trig­gered toxic belches spew­ing more than 100 pounds of hy­dro­gen sul­fide and more than 500 pounds of sul­fur diox­ide gas into the air, ex­ceed­ing state air qual­ity lim­its.

The re­fin­ery also emit­ted car­bon monox­ide at con­cen­tra­tions up to 1,120 parts per mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to a com­pany re­port submitted to state health of­fi­cials and re­viewed by The Den­ver Post.

This was the sec­ond time in five months that a power-sup­ply hic­cup led to a sud­den burst of toxic air pol­lu­tion from the re­fin­ery. It’s the lat­est chal­lenge at one of Colorado’s most prob­lem­atic in­dus­trial sites.

Xcel En­ergy of­fi­cials said power was out for six min­utes Satur­day night. Sun­cor spokes­woman Lisha Bur­nett on Thurs­day said power was out for more than 13 hours start­ing at 9:54 p.m. The un­ex­pected power in­ter­rup­tion trig­gered au­to­matic and man­ual safety shut­downs and the re­fin­ery still wasn’t back to nor­mal oper­a­tions, Bur­nett said.

“Xcel En­ergy’s fail­ure to pro­vide the re­fin­ery with a con­tin­u­ous power feed caused a tem­po­rary in­abil­ity of Sun­cor to com­ply with cer­tain of its per­mit lim­its,” she said.

Sun­cor of­fi­cials re­sponded to the prob­lem by clos­ing Brighton Boule­vard be­tween 56th and 60th av­enues Satur­day night. Sun­cor also sent air-mon­i­tor­ing trucks into sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods.

Com­pany of­fi­cials told lo­cal author­i­ties no toxic chem­i­cals had been de­tected in the sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods.

Hy­dro­gen sul­fide, a toxic byprod­uct of re­fin­ing and burn­ing oil, can kill. The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency has not set a na­tional air qual­ity limit for hy­dro­gen sul­fide be­cause any ex­po­sure is con­sid­ered dan­ger­ous.

Sul­fur diox­ide also comes from burn­ing fos­sil fu­els and can in­flame air­ways, es­pe­cially in peo­ple with asthma. High con­cen­tra­tions of sul­fur diox­ide worsen par­tic­u­late air pol­lu­tion that can pen­e­trate lungs. The EPA has set a health limit of 75 parts per bil­lion for sul­fur diox­ide. Car­bon monox­ide can im­pair oxy­gen de­liv­ery to tis­sues, the heart and brain.

Colorado Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health and En­vi­ron­ment of­fi­cials this week said they have not com­pleted a re­view of the Oct. 14 Sun­cor in­ci­dent in which an Xcel power fail­ure re­sulted in the re­lease of an es­ti­mated 75,600 pounds of sul­fur diox­ide — 150 times greater than the CDPHE daily limit of 500

pounds that trig­gers an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. That power out­age lasted for sec­onds. A re­fin­ery emis­sions stack spewed or­ange-col­ored hy­dro­car­bon-coated dust and gas, prompt­ing road clo­sures, a school lock­down and a warn­ing to res­i­dents to re­main in­doors.

“The events of the power out­age in Oc­to­ber 2016 at Sun­cor are com­plex in na­ture, and CDPHE’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the in­ci­dent is on­go­ing and de­lib­er­a­tive,” air pol­lu­tion con­trol di­vi­sion di­rec­tor Garry Kauf­man said in an e-mail. “There is no set date for com­plet­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The health depart­ment has set an­nual lim­its that Sun­cor must meet cov­er­ing nu­mer­ous sig­nif­i­cant pol­lu­tants in­clud­ing sul­fur diox­ide, par­tic­u­lates, ni­tro­gen ox­ides and car­bon monox­ide, Kauf­man wrote. And Sun­cor can­not emit more than 0.3 pounds of sul­fur diox­ide per bar­rel of oil pro­cessed, he said.

The com­pany would have to as- sert “an af­fir­ma­tive de­fense” to avoid civil penal­ties by show­ing state air qual­ity rules don’t ap­ply in the cir­cum­stances.

Be­fore these in­ci­dents, CDPHE of­fi­cials al­ready were deal­ing with nu­mer­ous pre­vi­ous chem­i­cal emis­sions prob­lems at the plant.

CDPHE of­fi­cials seemed to say there’s no health risk based on what Sun­cor of­fi­cials have dis­closed. The state has not con­ducted in­de­pen­dent air tests.

“Sun­cor per­son­nel have de­ployed mo­bile air qual­ity mon­i­tor­ing units around the perime­ter of the re­fin­ery, at ma­jor in­ter­sec­tions, and at schools in the area,” Kauf­man. “Sun­cor’s mon­i­tors mea­sure con­cen­tra­tions of hy­dro­gen sul­fide and sul­fur diox­ide in the air and have de­tected no read­ings of harm­ful emis­sions.”

Bur­nett said a full re­port will be submitted to state health depart­ment once the re­fin­ery re­turns to nor­mal oper­a­tions.

Xcel En­ergy spokes­woman Michelle Aguayo said “the ac­tual out­age lasted six min­utes.” She added that in mak­ing re­pairs Xcel later shut down the power again.

Aguayo called the two Sun­cor out­ages “un­re­lated.”

The Oct. 14 power out­age was caused by “a switch­ing is­sue due to an Re­gional Trans­porta­tion District re­quest to re­lo­cate a trans­mis­sion pole,” Aguayo said in an e-mailed re­sponse. “Satur­day’s out­age was the re­sult of a sleeve fail­ure on a trans­mis­sion line, caus­ing the line to fall into a dis­tri­bu­tion line that serves Sun­cor.”

Since 2013, state reg­u­la­tors have opened five cases against Sun­cor for pos­si­ble air-qual­ity vi­o­la­tions, CDPHE records show. State of­fi­cials are weigh­ing pos­si­ble penal­ties for pre­vi­ously iden­ti­fied de­fi­cien­cies that in­clude ex­ces­sive sul­fur diox­ide and other gas emis­sions. In June, CDPHE of­fi­cials no­ti­fied Sun­cor of­fi­cials their com­pany could face penal­ties of up to $15,000 a day. In 2015, state reg­u­la­tors or­dered Sun­cor to fix other pol­lu­tion prob­lems de­tected in 2013 and 2014. Sun­cor at one point ne­go­ti­ated a deal to avoid ad­mit­ting law vi­o­la­tions in re­turn for pay­ing a $214,050 ad­min­is­tra­tive penalty.

In 2012, state reg­u­la­tors fined Sun­cor $2.2 mil­lion for air qual­ity vi­o­la­tions re­lated to ben­zene air pol­lu­tion from the re­fin­ery.

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