Suncor Energy, the operator of a Commerce City, CO, oil refinery, said it shut down the facility after a malfunction spewed a chemical byproduct into the surrounding community, which is the second time it happened over a period of months.
In a statement posted to social media, Suncor Energy said the refinery, located just north of Denver city limits near the intersection of Brighton Boulevard and Interstate 270, experienced an “equipment malfunction” at 5:40 p.m. March 17. The incident caused the release of a catalyst, a clay-like substance used in the refining process.
It appears one of the air blowers failed at the Suncor refinery. Employees contacted the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) to report the incident.
Suncor shut down that unit, the company said.
Health department spokesman Andrew Bare said they don’t know yet why the blower failed and can’t speculate on the cause, but they expect Suncor to file a detailed report within 30 days and will then carefully review the report.
“As a precautionary measure, we sounded a vapor release alarm and immediately initiated our response plan,” the company said in a statement. “The unit has been put in safe mode.”
Suncor notified residents on March 9 it planned to conduct maintenance on the refinery that would last “approximately two weeks” and involve “periods of increased flaring.”
Visible plumes of yellowish smoke were being emitted from the facility’s smokestacks on March 17, according to social media posts from residents.
Suncor’s description of today’s incident is nearly identical to that of a December 11 “operational upset” that caused a yellowish plume of ash-like material to drift into Commerce City and fall on cars and other outdoor surfaces, leading two nearby schools to be placed on lockdown. The incident caused the refinery to be shut down for nearly a month.
Safety documents released by Suncor in the aftermath of the December 11 incident indicated its catalyst materials are rated as slight health hazards, according to the National Fire Protection Association’s hazard identification scale. The company advised residents at the time to “take standard hygiene practices such as washing hands and/or any affected clothing.”
Suncor said it is “concerned” about the March 17 incident and is monitoring the situation. “All employees are accounted for and community air monitoring is in place,” the company said. “We’ll provide more information as it becomes available and as response activities allow.”
In a statement, the CDPHE Suncor notified regulators of an equipment failure that resulted in “highly visible opacity emissions” and the company had been in contact with local emergency services and health officials. The department does not believe there is ongoing risk to the community, according to the statement.
“Suncor security personnel conducted monitoring with handheld devices for a range of materials, including hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, and observed no elevated levels,” CDPHE’s statement said. “We will monitor the situation and review data from the air monitors we have placed around the Suncor refinery.”