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Air quality monitoring ends after 2 years in Commerce City

"I think it was shocking to us that they’ve had this information and had done very little about it, relatively," said Olga Gonzalez, Cultivando.

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — After two years of air quality monitoring around Suncor and Commerce City, a community non-profit has decided to end its research. 

Cultivando said they've collected enough data and now want action that will reduce pollutants from industry in the air they breathe. 

"Our children [are] experiencing nose bleeds and headaches and breathing problems and some people even cancers," said Olga Gonzalez, executive director of Cultivando. 

Their research has confirmed what some residents have known their entire lives. 

"I think what is most surprising, honestly, to community and to many of us doing this work is that the government hadn't stepped in to take care of the situation sooner," said Gonzalez. 

The air they breathe is full of pollutants according to community non-profit Cultivando. That includes cancer-causing air toxics like benzene. 

"Now that we know better, we should do better," said Gonzalez. "What happens in one community affects us all."

She said residents came to them for help. So, Cultivando started an air monitoring program using money from a settlement between Suncor and Colorado, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

"Airflow comes from that direction, benzene levels are 4-5 times higher," said Detlev Helmig as he pointed at Suncor behind him.

Helmig is the owner of BoulderAIR and atmospheric scientist Cultivando hired to gather the data. He has other air quality monitors in places like Boulder, Broomfield, and Longmont. 

"There’s multiple pollutants that are at levels here that are unusual, that are higher than most other areas in the state," he said.

They used two air quality monitors, one upwind and another downwind from Suncor. They also used mobile monitors to capture data in other areas of Commerce City. 

"We see changes in concentration by a thousand times over like two-three minutes and then it comes down again," he said.

He said they discovered a lot in their research including high variability in pollutant concentrations, multiple kinds of pollutants, and airborne radioactivity. 

"The spikes and spikes and spikes, for many pollutants. We see that for particles, for nitrogen oxide, for sulfur dioxide, for hydrogen sulfide, for benzene, spikes, spikes, spikes, very short and over and over, again and again and again," said Helmig.

The data collected was provided in real-time on their website. Cultivando also used the data to alert nearby residents of high levels of pollutants being released. 

"We indeed see higher levels of radioactivity when the winds come from the direction of the refinery," said Helmig. "There's no safe levels of radioactivity. There's no safe levels of benzene for instance. So with every added molecule in the air that we breathe, your risk for health impact goes up."

Helmig said in April when an incident at Suncor caused a significant amount of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide to be released, their monitors picked it up first. 

"We thought at that time that that instrument had a problem of some sort and then we found out no, the instrument was working fine but we had never seen levels a thousand times higher than the normal background," said Helmig. "We’ve demonstrated to the state that we can provide important, valuable data."

Their data has been frequently shared with and utilized by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). 

"The data isn't surprising to us. It aligns with the information we have and the monitoring that we're doing in the area as well," said Michael Ogletree, director of the Air Pollution Control Division at CDPHE. 

"We're in the process right now of hiring a refinery expert to go through and look at all the data and provide us with those types of things we could be putting in their permits."

He said right now, they're working on implementing stricter regulations to improve air quality in overburdened communities across the state. 

"Over the next four years we'll be developing a list of those toxic air contaminants that are really impacting the community and then put those in front of the air quality control commission so we have the authority to regulate them," said Ogletree. 

CDPHE said it will continue to reference all available air monitors in the area, including the division's and Suncor's permanent monitors. They are also in the process of creating another permanent air toxic monitoring station near Adams City Middle School, approximately two miles north of Suncor. CDPHE hopes that the site will be up and running by January 1, 2024. 

But, Gonzalez said more needs to happen, and soon, to protect disproportionately impacted communities that are primarily composed of people of color and lower wage earners. 

"Their approach to just simply fining Suncor is not cutting it," she said. "It's not changing things. They can afford to pay the fine over and over and over again."

She said after two years the community is done collecting data just for the sake of collecting data. 

"This data must lead to some kind of change, to do anything less it's not only disrespectful to the community, it's inhumane," said Gonzalez. "It's time for action. People are tired of waiting."

CDPHE said it received a significant amount of funding from the state legislature to develop an air toxics program, statewide. 

Cultivando said they will be focusing their efforts on advocacy and pushing for change. 

9NEWS has not heard a response from Suncor.

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