Environmental Racism: Colorado’s Suncor Refinery Pollutes Community
I’m a star watcher, but it’s been harder to see the stars at night. Sometimes the fumes are unbearable and I’m not able to stand outside for long. I’ve lived for five years in North Park Hill, about five miles southeast of the Suncor Refinery in north Denver, and our air quality has only been getting worse.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE) just closed a comment period where I and members of our communities gave testimony about the horrors we experience living in the shadow of one of Colorado’s worst polluters. For more than 10 years, the Suncor refinery has been operating on an expired Clean Air Act permit. It has had repeated air and water quality violations. There have been times when unknown particles covered our school yards, playgrounds, and cars and forced people near the facility to shelter in place.
As an Indigenous person from the Navajo reservation, I’m all too familiar with environmental violence, racism, and its health impacts. My community lives between highways and busy streets, and increasingly we-Indigenous, Black, Latino, low-income people-are being pushed further into heavily industrial parts of the city which provide the only options for affordable housing.
I have been living with asthma since I was an infant. My youngest son has breathing irregularities. This places us in a catch-22 -either live homeless, or live in these redlined places where we can’t open the windows because of the polluted air.
We don’t know what’s in the air. We don’t get warnings when pollution events happen. We don’t know what the risks are. Suncor hasn’t submitted any information about the impacts of their pollution on the health of our community or even its own workers. We know this facility is falling apart and under financial strain. But while it remains, we suffer.
Suncor is located along Sand Creek where almost 150 years ago the US Army marched onto the reservation of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, who were waving white flags of peace, and massacred them. That history and our current fate are interconnected. If we are to move forward together, our leaders must introduce remedies to these historic traumas.
The CDPHE must give the concerns of the community due weight and, in doing so, it must issue the most robust Title V permit possible that holds Suncor accountable and protects the community from further harm.
We also demand fence line air monitoring and a public alert system set up so we can be warned when the facility is spewing toxic gas over our neighborhoods. We need a comprehensive health assessment of the impacts of the refinery on the nearby residents and Suncor workers to be made public. This would give us clarity and data necessary for protecting our own health, the health of our children and families, and that of our neighbors. It also would help begin to heal the relationship between the state and our communities by providing transparency.
Ultimately, we don’t believe Suncor will clean up its act enough to be a safe neighbor, so we would like CDPHE deny the permit. We need to see the air cleaned up by this industry, and it be phased out in favor of clean energy alternatives. The state must work to accelerate this transition.
We were hopeful when the governor adopted the Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If he is not to be the fork-tongue that indigenous people know so well, Governor Polis, the CDPHE, Air Quality Control Commission, and the Air Pollution Control Division must help Coloradans, not the polluters.
In Navajo it is said life started out of mist and air. Water and air are the fundamentals of all life. We should strive for the rights of people to exist. If we don’t address the problems with our water and air, we won’t survive.