Local Groups Appeal CDPHE’s Decisions in Suncor’s Water Discharge Permit

By Trish Zornio

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) is being challenged by local environmental groups over allegedly lax enforcement standards. The debate centers on whether the state agency has kept adequate oversight of so-called forever chemicals in Suncor Energy’s water discharge permits. 

Earthjustice, the organization representing GreenLatinos, Trout Unlimited and the Sierra Club in the administrative appeal, is disputing several aspects of Suncor’s water discharge permit under the Clean Water Act regarding PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Among the group’s chief arguments are that CDPHE neglected to use the most up-to-date federal guidelines, therefore setting Suncor’s water discharge PFAS limits too high. The group also contends that CDPHE set inappropriate monitoring requirements and took too long to enforce updated permits.

Exposure to PFAS has recently been linked to numerous health conditions in humans including deadly cancers, organ damage and developmental delays in children. The chemicals have long resided across a range of consumer products and industrial waste.

The difficulty in removing the forever chemicals, hence their moniker, has prompted a spree of tightened standards in recent years. In April, the Biden-Harris Administration updated PFAS enforcement to include stronger clean-up and improved national drinking water standards. There were also prior updates to PFAS standards in 2022 and 2016, however, as local groups point out, the latest PFAS standards are likely to have little impact on Suncor’s newest water discharge permit, prompting concern.

According to Earthjustice, CDPHE is lagging in the enforcement of PFAS standards as related to Suncor’s water discharge permit. The argument stems back to 2012 when Suncor was issued a five-year permit that lapsed into a nearly 12-year permit despite updates to PFAS standards in federal guidelines. In the end, Earthjustice argues that CDPHE chose to proceed with outdated standards for the newest permit as well, putting locals at increased risk of health problems.

For its part, CDPHE said they received “significant feedback” on the matter, citing a lack of regulatory requirements from the EPA as a basis for their decision. “At this time, the Environmental Protection Agency does not have numeric surface water quality standards for PFAS chemicals. The department determined that the monitoring, best management practices, and numeric effluent limitations in the Suncor permit are consistent with EPA guidance for protecting water quality.”

According to Ian Coghill of Earthjustice, this is true, but it’s a matter of semantics.

“The Safe Drinking Water Act is generally focused on levels of pollution in public drinking water systems, while the Clean Water Act is focused on discharges of pollutants into surface water bodies,” said Coghill. “However, even though the health advisories are not specifically associated with Clean Water Act permits or surface waters, the state relied on the 2016 health advisory level [instead of the 2022 advisory] to establish what it deemed to be the safe level for concentrations of PFAS in state surface waters.”

“Water is all connected,” said Ean Thomas Tafoya, Colorado state director for GreenLatinos, in a press release. “When we divide water for regulation and allow more pollution it ultimately impacts everything downstream, especially when we are discussing persistent toxic chemicals like PFAS.”

As Coghill sees it, CDPHE chose not to rely upon the updated 2022 PFAS health advisory levels for Suncor’s water discharge permit, a grave oversight given those levels are much lower than the 2016 guidances due to new scientific information.

Asked for comment on whether the EPA supports the decision of CDPHE to use the older PFAS guidelines, an agency spokesperson replied, “The Suncor permit meets current and relevant requirements under the Clean Water Act and is based on a state regulatory action finalized in 2020. We defer to the state on any plans to modify PFAS requirements for their clean water discharge permits in the future.”

The appeal by local groups also highlights discrepancies in PFAS testing, including CDPHE setting daily limits but only requiring weekly monitoring. Here again, CDPHE acknowledged the difference, suggesting the new limits were still an improvement and that daily monitoring of other pollutants would help suggest if there were relevant issues. 

Thus far, neither CDPHE nor EPA has stated whether they will reconsider the guidelines, but CDPHE spokespersons were adamant they are taking the issue seriously.

“This is the most stringent permit we’ve ever issued to Suncor,” read a statement provided to The Denver North Star. “We are committed to continuing to do all we can to protect water quality.”

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.