Over 100 community members joined Colorado environmental activists at a screening Wednesday of a new documentary film about the impacts of pollution from a Commerce City refinery on the surrounding community.
The refinery, operated by Canadian oil and gas company Suncor, is notorious for polluting the air and water in Commerce City as well as the North Denver neighborhoods Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. According to the documentary, Suncor has been operating outside of state air quality permits since 2011.
The documentary, titled Suncor Sundown, outlines the refinery’s sordid history and includes interviews with community members affected by the pollution.
Three Colorado activist groups collaborated on the documentary: Cultivando, a Commerce City non-profit; Womxn from the Mountain, a cultural education group that fights for indigenous issues such as sex trafficking and environmental justice; and Spirit of the Sun, an all-womxn led non-profit looking to empower indigenous communities.
Suncor Sundown acknowledges that Commerce City lies on land originally home to the Ute, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota, Kiowa, and Chicano tribes, among others, many of which still have a presence in the city. In fact, the area around Suncor’s Commerce City refinery is 75% non-white and 55% below the federal poverty line.
Several community members interviewed in the documentary say that if the area surrounding the Suncor refinery were predominantly affluent or white, the pollution would have been abated.
José Palacios, a Commerce City resident, explained that can often see the pollution in the air due to yellow smoke coming from the Suncor refinery.
“And you can see some of that yellow smoke, I’ve been driving down the street and been able to see it,” Palacios said in the documentary. “Because [the refinery] is so close and because [Suncor] doesn’t always disclose what’s in the air and what’s being emitted we don’t really know how it’s going to affect us.”
There have been several instances over the past five years of the refinery malfunctioning and spreading yellow smoke and ash over the surrounding area. In 2016, several nearby schools were put on lockdown due to the yellow cloud emitting from the refinery.
In the documentary, members of the community reported cases of auto-immune disorders, asthma, chronic nosebleeds, and cancers that they believe were caused by pollution from local polluters like Suncor.
Elvia Chávez, a commerce city resident and mother, explained in Spanish how the pollution has impacted people in her life.
“Many folks I know say they have children that suffer from a lot of nosebleeds and doctors have told them that it might be because of the environment,” Chávez said.
Reneé Millard-Chacón, a Commerce City resident and founder of Womxn from the Mountain, was also featured in the documentary criticizing Suncor for disrespecting the Earth and the people of Commerce City.
“[Suncor] wants all of the resources without the responsibility of restoring the source of life that they’re taking,” Millard-Chacón. “Because they come from a mentality where they can take the resource without ever restoring the space. A life-giver understands the rebalance of taking part of that resource but mostly restoring the space so that resource can continue. It’s supposed to be sustainable.”
The documentary also explained community efforts to fight back against Suncor.
It spotlighted Cultivando, which earlier this year received state funding as part of a Suncor settlement to conduct community air quality monitoring.
The non-profit is distributing home air-quality monitors to residents of Commerce City, Globeville, and Elyria-Swansea in order to get an unbiased snapshot of the air quality surrounding the Suncor refinery. Cultivando is also creating a bilingual, easy-to-understand website so people can view the findings from the data themselves and conducting resident health surveys.
After the documentary screening, those featured in the documentary led a roundtable discussion about the movie.
Susan Noble, a City Council member for Commerce City, and a representative from U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper’s (D-CO) office were present in the audience and asked for feedback for what government, both local and federal, could do to help.
Aracely Navarro, who leads the air quality monitoring campaign for Cultivando, said that she wants to see federal money used for a longitudinal epidemiological analysis, essentially a long-term study of a group of people, of the health impacts faced by the communities surrounding the Suncor refinery. Such a study has never been done, according to Navarro.
Other audience members suggested compensation from the government for those who developed adverse health conditions due to the pollution.
Also during the discussion, Steve Douglas, a former Commerce City Council member, and Millard-Chacón, who ran for City Council this year, called out Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO) for his inaction concerning Suncor and other oil and gas operations in the state.
Millard-Chacón said that facing the climate crisis would take courage from everyone, but that disproportionately impacted communities have mostly been the ones to stand up for themselves. She also asked for federal investigations into Suncor and other corporations that are operating in predatory ways.
“I do call out Governor Polis and Senator Hickenlooper to commit to eliminating fossil fuel development by 2025 per the Paris agreement,” Millard-Chacón said to the audience. “We cannot continue the way we are now. We are being choked out by gentrification combined with every other systemic violence which right now is just being compounded during COVID. We need you to come protect our communities or allow us to protect ourselves.”
When the discussion began to focus on the economic benefits of Suncor — including providing jobs for the surrounding communities, providing all the jet fuel for Denver International Airport, and providing almost all the asphalt in Colorado — Millard-Chacón said that they cannot be weighed against people’s lives.
“This is being talked about like it’s a complex issue,” Millard-Chacón said. “This isn’t a complex issue. This is a profoundly simple issue. We cannot weigh economic benefits against health and safety benefits of community members.”
Next February the Colorado Department of Public Health will decide whether to renew Suncor’s lapsed air and water pollution permits.