Blanca Sanchez waited outside of Commerce City’s Kemp Elementary School in the waning days of 2019 for her children to come out of the building.
But because of a mid-morning chemical release at the Suncor Energy refinery, four miles away, her kids and their classmates weren’t allowed to leave. She returned to her car and noticed a fine layer of ash covering the vehicle.
“I thought it was snow falling at first,” said Sanchez, who didn’t learn until later that it was a substance the refinery unintentionally emitted in its gas-production process. “It was a bit concerning because we breathe this air.”
Sanchez’s bewilderment about that incident — a sentiment shared by hundreds of her neighbors in the largely low-income Latino neighborhood — at the 230-acre petroleum plant is finally getting addressed.
On Feb. 24, Suncor will start accepting sign-ups for a notification system that will go live on June 1, alerting residents about any incidents that might cause concern or even pique curiosity, be it a gas flare or a belch of smoke from a smokestack.
It’s the result of a $9 million settlement the company agreed to with state environmental authorities nearly a year ago, following years of excessive releases of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen oxides and more.
The company will also send out alerts about planned events that could have impacts on roads around the plant, like firefighter training.
“Anyone and everyone who wants to know more about operations at the refinery can sign up,” Suncor spokeswoman Lisha Burnett said. “This is to ensure we’re listening.”
It’s a small step in what’s been a long and complicated history of industrial operations in the city north of Denver, said Lucy Molina, a community activist who lives within a mile of the refinery in Commerce City’s Adams Heights neighborhood.
“We’re such a marginalized community — this is 100 years of environmental racism,” Molina said. “I hope this is the start of justice. I hope the entire city takes advantage.”
The notification effort comes on the heels of an emergency alert system — akin to an Amber Alert — established by the company at the beginning of 2021 in response to House Bill 20-1265, which Gov. Jared Polis signed into law in July. The law requires companies to alert nearby residents if chemical toxins are emitted that exceed the legal limit.
“We hope that there is never a need to use it,” Burnett said.
The opt-in notification system for non-emergency events at the plant will alert Commerce City and north Denver neighborhoods downwind of the plant via voice, text or email, Burnett said. Because anyone can opt-in to receive alerts, it’s not clear how many people will eventually sign up, but the area most impacted by the plant includes thousands of households.
Suncor will roll out the new notification system with a formal campaign later this month, providing a bilingual web portal where residents can sign up in English and Spanish. In addition to social media and digital outreach, the company will mail opt-in instructions to older residents who may not use a cellphone or computer.
Burnett said Suncor will monitor how well the system is working once it is up and running and make adjustments as needed.
“This is not a one and done,” she said.
Jennifer Allen-Thomas, a Commerce City councilwoman whose district encompasses the refinery, said getting information to residents is one thing, but she’d rather see Suncor work on halting its emissions violations altogether.
“It’s better than nothing but I’m concerned whether this is going to be effective,” she said. “It’s a baby step and I want more. I want to see a lot more.”