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While growing up in Elyria-Swansea, Lucy Molina believed it was normal to endure frequent ailments. Her grandmother, mother, and other relatives in the area have all suffered from a variety of illnesses. Some had diabetes. Others developed cancer. A few died from these conditions, including Molina’s grandmother. Molina herself has suffered from migraines most of her life.
The cycle didn’t end when Molina, who is Mexican-American, and her family moved to Commerce City. Her son often got bloody noses at school. Her two children missed dozens of school days due to migraines and stomachaches. All those absences concerned someone enough to report Molina to the authorities—the state assigned a caseworker to Molina’s home to ensure she was not abusing her kids. (Such calls are anonymous, so Molina isn’t sure who made the report.)
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These symptoms and ailments were normalized growing up, Molina says, always attributed to genetics. Doctors continued to insist nothing was wrong when her kids got sick. Her family was instead referred to a psychiatrist.
Then, one day, a doctor asked where she lived. Molina, who resides less than a mile from the Suncor Refinery Business Center and can see its thick, dark smoke from her home, was immediately told she should move. That wasn’t an option—as a single mother of two, her home in Commerce City is the only place Molina can afford. But having some semblance of an answer was a relief. “Is it some brujeria, some kind of evil eye?” asks Molina. “No, it’s actually my deadly neighbor here that is blowing out on us every day.”
The doctor’s recommendation wasn’t merely a hunch. Refineries emit chemicals and air pollutants (such as benzene, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide), that have been shown to harm human health. Exposure to some of these substances can cause short-term symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches, as well as long-term problems, including asthma and cancer.
Regulations exist to protect the public from these byproducts, but many in Commerce City believe neither state nor federal agencies are doing enough to monitor pollution at Suncor. That’s why Cultivando, a nonprofit focused on environmental justice and health equity for the Latino population in Adams County, is stepping into the watchdog role with it’s newest program: Air Quality Investigation and Research for Equity, or, as the team prefers to call it, AIRE.
Since it began in 1999, Cultivando has worked to give Commerce City denizens the tools they need to advocate for themselves, says Aracely Navarro, the nonprofit’s director of environmental justice. AIRE (which translates to “air” in Spanish) continues that tradition by tracking 50-plus different pollutants in Commerce City, as well as Denver’s Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods, all of which are located near the Suncor refinery.
Cultivando’s approach to the AIRE project is three-pronged. The nonprofit provided 13 community members with an at-home monitor to gather air quality data directly outside their homes. By the end of January, Cultivando will also have a data-collecting van driving around different sections of the neighborhoods every few weeks. Think of Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine, but chasing numbers instead of monsters.
Finally, Cultivando hired Boulder Atmosphere Innovation Research (AIR), a company that monitors and analyzes air quality, to help gather and interpret data collected at a stationary site in Commerce City. Both that site as well as the at-home monitors began amassing data at the end of December. All those numbers will soon be available to the public on the Cultivando and Boulder AIR websites.
Navarro, a first-generation Chicana, believes the raw data from AIRE will represent numerical proof that her community has endured generations of suffering at the hands of Suncor. “We need to stop blaming people of color for their own disease and illness,” Navarro says. “We’re literally being poisoned every day in different ways.”
Such a finding would represent yet another way environmental racism has harmed communities of color. In 2019, the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study that found particulate matter, a pollutant linked to 100,000 deaths per year, disproportionately harms Black and Hispanic individuals in the United States, even though white U.S. residents create more pollution.
Colorado is no exception. Mapping for Environmental Justice, a team of data experts funded by environmental nonprofit Earth Island Institute, published a map in 2020 showing that communities of color in Colorado are more likely to live near polluted areas than white communities. And state data shows that Commerce City and North Denver, home to a larger proportion of Latinx and Black residents than elsewhere in the state, face higher levels of fine particle pollution than the state average.
Since it was built 90 years ago along Sand Creek, the Suncor refinery has been responsible for some of that pollution. Suncor self-reported that its Colorado refinery emitted 800,000 tons of pollution in 2019, two tons of which were benzene. In 2019, a yellow substance called catalyst rained down on two schools near Suncor. (The substance was non-hazardous and caused by a “system upset,” according to a statement from Suncor.)
Shaina Oliver, a mother of four and an environmental and Indigenous Peoples’ rights activist from the Navajo Nation, says her husband’s allergies and her asthma flare up if they spend a few hours near the refinery. Oliver’s home is five miles from Suncor. Her family can smell crude oil in the late evenings and early mornings. But she says asking those living in poverty to attend public meetings and advocate for themselves—an often intimidating process—can be a big ask, even as “people are living in these homes that are being blanketed with Suncor,” Oliver says.
The company has been sued for a number of emissions exceedances since 2017, including expulsions of volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter. In March 2020, Suncor paid $9 million in a settlement with the Colorado Department of Health & Environment (CDPHE). It’s the largest amount a single facility has forked over for air quality violations in state history—Molina testified about her family’s health during the proceedings. (5280 reached out to Suncor for comment but has not received a response.)
That historic settlement is actually the source of Cultivando’s AIRE funding: CDPHE gave Cultivando an $870,000 grant from that sum to launch AIRE. Another $870,000 went to Cultivando’s community environmental health evaluation project, which will involve hiring healthcare professionals to interview Commerce City residents about their health.
Cultivando isn’t the first or only entity monitoring Suncor. CDPHE has five permanent air monitors near the Suncor refinery, plus three temporary ones put in place after the catalyst incident in 2019, as well as others around the state. These devices measure and report levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, ground level ozone, and two sizes of particulate matter in real time. That doesn’t capture all known refinery pollutants, Navarro says. Oil refineries like Suncor must monitor their own emissions, too. The company files those reports with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and CDPHE, but that only allows the public to see averages, not the raw data.
It’s not a helpful way to measure exposure, says Detlev Helmig, owner of Boulder AIR. “Most oil and gas emissions exposure stems from short-term pollution plume events where concentrations may increase by a factor of 10, 100, or even 1,000 for a short period. It could just be five minutes, or 15 minutes, or maybe half an hour,” he says. Those plumes, while brief, still harm human health and need fast-response measurements to capture them.
Following the March 2020 settlement, Suncor was ordered to create an improved multi-lingual communication system with the community to quickly inform the public if the refinery’s pollutants reach hazardous levels. People can sign up for notifications here. Suncor also voluntarily hired Montrose Air Quality Services to start conducting air monitoring in the summer of 2021. The site updates every five minutes. But in a story published by the Colorado Sun, environmental activists in Commerce City expressed doubts about the trustworthiness of this data.
While she’s excited about the work Cultivando can accomplish using the CDPHE money, Navarro says there needs to be an acknowledgment of the community’s anger. “It shouldn’t have gotten to the point where our government agencies or legislators or commissions, these boards that are supposed to be working for the health of the community, haven’t really done much,” she says.
Navarro’s hope is to inspire future generations to keep fighting for environmental justice. “If more people are aware of it and more kids are inspired to keep doing this work and protecting the earth,” she says, “I think I’ll be happy with that.”