The only major petroleum refinery operating in Colorado experienced an equipment breakdown Tuesday afternoon that released catalyst from a fluid catalytic cracker into the surrounding neighborhood.
In a statement posted to social media, management at Suncor’s Commerce City refinery said that all employees are accounted for and community air monitoring is in place.
“Our first priority is the safety of our employees, contractors and neighbors,” the statement reads. “We are concerned about the situation and take it very seriously.”
Fluid catalytic cracking is a process by which high-boiling, high-molecular weight hydrocarbon fractions of petroleum crude oil is converted into gasoline and other refinery products. The catalyst used in the process is a solid sand-like material that is made fluid by the hot vapor and liquid fed into the FCC unit.
Somehow the catalyst entered the actual refining process and was released into the atmosphere.
“As a precautionary measure, we sounded a vapor release alarm and immediately initiated our response plan,” the Suncor statement reads. “The unit has been put in safe mode.”
Appropriate authorities were immediately contacted, the statement adds. Brighton Boulevard passing the refinery was temporarily closed as a precaution but was later allowed to reopen.
According to the Denver website Westword Suncor notified nearby resident on March 9 that a maintenance of two weeks was planned. Increased flaring during this period was to be expected.
A similar incident in which catalyst was released occurred Dec. 11 when the refinery attempted to start an FCC unit that had been shut down for maintenance, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“The device was not performing as expected, and employees observed visible emissions from the unit,” a statement issued by CDPHE states.
Particulate matter released during such events is a pollutant that can cause health problems at high levels, the state agency explained. Two nearby schools were placed on emergency lockdown during the event.
Suncor closed the refinery for nearly a month after the first event.
Earlier this month CDPHE announce a $9 million settlement to resolve outstanding air pollution violations involving the Commerce City refinery, the largest such payment that Colorado has required from a single facility.