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Cultivando continues to monitor air quality during Suncor shutdown

"Levels didn’t drop dramatically during the last month. We don’t see that in the data," said Detlev Helmig.

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — According to Suncor Energy, repairs have been completed at one of three plants, of which is expected to reopen next week. Colorado's only oil refinery shut down at the end of December after two fires and damage from the extreme cold. 

Cultivando, a community non-profit, has been monitoring air quality around Suncor and other industries in Commerce City for about a year now. 

Each and every week, air quality monitors need to be checked, and the filter replaced. A few of them sit just outside of a refinery and many other industries at Riverside Cemetery. 

"For the future, we don't know the impact of the people close to the refinery," said Elvia, an environmental advocate for Cultivando. "We don't know the kind of impact it will have to their person/body." 

The uncertainty of how pollutants affect peoples' health is why she's collecting data. 

Some people who live in Commerce City say having cancer, nose bleeds, and asthma have become normalized. 

"Now a certain part of this refinery has been closed, but the same thing continues," said Elvia. 

Suncor shut down at the end of December. Atmospheric scientist Detlev Helmig said air pollutant levels haven't dropped dramatically. 

"We've seen that levels are actually quite high compared to last year, but that's to a large extent, driven by the strong inversions we've had," said Helmig.

He said surface-inversions cause cold air to get trapped near the ground, then pollutants get trapped under the inversion, and pollutant concentrations go up. Helmig said pollutant levels can also be extremely variable, changing depending on the time of day and other factors. 

Credit: 9NEWS - Corky Scholl
A promotora ambiental (environmental advocate) for Cultivando, changes a filter on an air quality monitor in Riverside Cemetery.

"We sometimes see levels that are 10, 50 or 100 times higher than it was an hour earlier," he said. "The pollutants for which we see that most dramatically are particulate matters, so aerosols, small particles that can make it deep into your lungs."

Helmig is also the owner of BoulderAIR and is contracted by Cultivando to provide air monitoring. He said they monitor 2-3 dozen kinds of pollutants. 

"The communities have been in the dark for a long, long time, not knowing what the pollutants are, why they are high at some times and why not, how it compares to other locations in the state," Helmig said. 

He said while the data shows pollutant levels are much higher in Commerce City than other areas, it's still unknown how that impacts the body. 

“We also do not know at all how much two, three, four pollutants together at the same time, breathing that all at the same time, what does that together compared to just one pollutant," said Helmig. "There’s a very high likelihood that it has a much different impact on the human body than being exposed than just one individual pollutant by itself.”

For now, they will continue to collect data and empower themselves with information.

"Well, for many it is a source of a very strong economy," said Elvia. "For others, it is of the effect that causes concern for their health."

Cultivando and Boulder AIR will continue to monitor air quality as the refinery starts back up again.

Suncor said they are also continuously watching air quality. They said on January 1 they launched a fenceline monitoring system. 

Editor's note: Some of the quotes in this article were translated from Spanish.


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