Summer on the Front Range is ozone season, but individual actions can help reduce air pollution

The Suncor oil refinery is a repeat offender in a region with persistently poor air quality

July 4, 2023 3:30 am

A view of the Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City on Feb. 20, 2022. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Amidst afternoon lightning storms and occasional golf ball-size hail, Colorado’s summers are replete with blooming columbines, camping trips and powerful sunshine. In the Front Range, however, summer is also the harbinger of poor air quality.

Intense sun and stagnant air intensify the concentration of pollutants suffocating cities and suburbs. A cocktail of pollutants impact residents’ health. The most visible pollutant, particulate matter, is made up of microscopic debris small enough to lodge in lungs. Carbon monoxide, a compound that reduces oxygen flow to organs, and which is fatal in high concentrations, also plagues the Front Range.

The most persistent pollutant, however, is ground-level ozone.

According to the American Lung Association, Denver and Aurora have the sixth highest average number of days in the U.S. with unhealthy ozone pollution, with Fort Collins and Colorado Springs not far behind. In the summer of 2021 the Front Range broke a record: There were 65 ozone alert days, meaning ozone pollution was severe enough to warrant canceling outdoor plans and hunkering down indoors.

The consistency and severity of the region’s ozone pollution is a critical public health threat. Experts have compared breathing ozone pollution to a “sunburn of the lungs.” It irritates the respiratory system, exacerbates COVID symptoms, can trigger heart attacks, causes lower birth weight and may even reduce gut microbiome diversity. It’s estimated that ozone pollution causes 1.04-1.23 million premature adult deaths each year. Vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly, are the most susceptible to ozone’s dangerous health impacts. In the Front Range, studies have measured worse ozone pollution in communities with more low income and nonwhite residents.

Suncor has repeatedly demonstrated a lack of regard for human health.

The region’s air quality is especially relevant this summer because the Environmental Protection Agency recently released a report drawing attention to the pollution stemming from Colorado’s only oil refinery. The refinery is owned by a Canadian company, Suncor. The EPA’s report found that malfunctions occur at Suncor, located in Commerce City, more frequently than at comparable refineries. Suncor’s malfunctions have polluted surrounding communities’ air with sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, chemicals that cause difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness or even death.

Suncor is one of the top 20 worst sources of air pollution in the entire state, and community activists have been advocating against the negative health impacts of Suncor’s Commerce City refinery for years. Any company that pollutes the environment has an obligation to the public to operate as carefully and responsibly as possible — an obligation that is not eclipsed by profit or benefits to the economy.

Unfortunately, the EPA’s new report is only the most recent reprimand for Suncor in a long history of irresponsibility, and comes on the heels of a $9 million settlement with the state of Colorado for excessive air pollution. Suncor has repeatedly demonstrated a lack of regard for human health: Between December and March, Suncor exceeded emission limits for air pollutants 37 times, including for carcinogenic benzene. Hopefully, this most recent government censure will be another nail in the Suncor refinery’s coffin, and a step forward for the Front Range’s air quality.

Despite Suncor’s record of environmental degradation, the refinery isn’t the Front Range’s only, or even primary, source of ozone pollution. Ozone pollution is formed when sunshine causes volatile organic compounds, knows as VOCs, to react with nitrogen oxides, which are emitted from vehicle tailpipe emissions, lawn and garden equipment, industrial plants, and oil and gas production. Unlike rising ocean temperatures, tropical deforestation and other catastrophic environmental issues, the region’s air quality isn’t an amalgamation of international corporate greed or vague governmental mismanagement (except for when wildfires blow in damaging particulate matter and other pollutants). Up to two-thirds of ozone-causing emissions in the Front Range are a result of the actions taken by people living and working in the region.

Individuals in the Front Range can, and do, exert some control over the quality of the air they breathe. Two simple but potentially transformative actions that individuals can take to reduce ozone pollution in their neighborhoods and front yards are driving less and replacing gas powered lawn and garden equipment with electric equipment (both solutions also reduce greenhouse gas emissions).

This summer, people traveling or living in the Denver metro region can practice driving less at no cost, because RTD is hosting a fare-free July and August. The program is designed to encourage residents to use the region’s public transit for free to reduce summer ozone pollution. Likewise, residents can take advantage of $75-$150 vouchers for electric lawn mowers and leaf blowers.

Front Range residents may have to tolerate Suncor’s refinery for now, but individuals can take some steps to improve their air. So, as summer greets another ozone season, drive less and, where possible, upgrade to electric.

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Sammy Herdman
Sammy Herdman

Sammy Herdman lives in Denver and spends as much time outdoors as possible. She's an environmental policy and management graduate student at the University of Denver and a program coordinator with the Regional Air Quality Council. Opinions are her own.