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Coming Clean: The Ongoing Effort to Address Suncor’s Oil Spill — and a History of Contamination — near Denver

This is the first installment of a story on the Suncor oil spill.

Roughly five miles from downtown Denver, in nearby Commerce City, a plume of underground oil continues to tentacle its way from the Suncor Refinery. At this bustling industrial complex, big rigs come and go, railroad cars snake out from the innards of the grounds, and monstrous stacks and towers shoot into the sky.

Bordering the property, the slow-flowing —and contaminated — Sand Creek meanders by, carrying dangerous dissolved hydrocarbons, including cancer-causing benzene, from the spill as it joins the S. Platte River.

Commerce City Refinery - Suncor Energy

Commerce City Refinery - Suncor Energy (image by Suncor)

“If you go downstream, there are two big reservoirs, huge resources of surface water that could be an incredible recreational area,” says Tom Anthony, a long-time resident of nearby Elyria and former president of the United Community Action Network neighborhood association that serves the poverty-stricken communities around Suncor: Globeville, Elyria, Swansea. “You’re basically turning this into a dead zone. What should be the crown jewel of the Platte River Basin, Suncor can pollute with virtual impunity.”

While hyperbolic, that seems to be the prevailing attitude of many residents and groups who are familiar with the spill and the Suncor site in general.

“It’s a structural and systemic problem,” says Alex Budd, one of the organizers and coordinators at Deep Green, who participated in a protest at Suncor on March 15, along with Colorado AIM, 350.org, Occupy Denver, and United Community Action Network.  “With industries like that, they are allowed to pollute because there’s no way they can do business without messing up.”

There is some level of truth to that last part, admits Warren Smith, community involvement manager in the Hazardous Materials Waste Management Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE).

“We understand and share the public’s frustration, and are holding Suncor strictly accountable for cleaning up its mess. However, it would be unrealistic to expect that there will never be a “release” at the site. Refining has been occurring for approximately 80 years (50 years before there were environmental laws), and a portion of the problem is attributable to historic contamination. In addition, the refinery is a complex system of pipes, valves and tanks that processes approximately 90,000 barrels of petroleum every day (that’s 3,780,000 gallons). Leaks, spills and accidents are inevitable.”

To Suncor’s credit, they have complied with all of the directives set forth by the state and met or exceeded all deadlines thus far to mitigate the spill. They are also bearing the financial cost.

“Once we became aware of the problem, our response was immediate and aimed at protecting the waterways, the environment, our employees and contractors, and the community,” says John Gallagher, vice president of refining for Suncor Energy. “We have and will continue to place a high priority on this work.”

As of early May, nearly 696 thousand gallons (16,569 barrels) of “material” had been recovered as part of clean-up efforts.

But that begs the question: How much hasn’t been recovered?

Next week’s installment will look at the history of the refinery site, the chronology of events leading up to the spill, and the response and clean-up.

Map of the Spill Area

Map of the spill area

Map of the spill area, provided by CDPHE

Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene & Xylenes (BTEX) Levels in Sand Creek & the S. Platte (provided by CDPHE)

How to Read the Water Sampling Data

The spreadsheet tracks concentrations of Benzene, Ethyl benzene, Toluene and Xylenes (chemicals found in gasoline and similar hydrocarbons) in Sand Creek and the South Platte River.

Here are some tips to help you interpret the chart:

  • SCSW means Sand Creek Surface Water, so SCSW-07 means Sand Creek Surface Water monitoring location No. 7.
  • SPRSW means South Platte River Surface Water.
  • BDSW means Burlington Ditch Surface Water.
  • The numbers in the vertical columns represent parts per billion.
  • Boldface numbers indicate a reading in excess of water quality standards.
  • The SCSANDBAR reading represents a grab sample at the seep location taken by EPA’s emergency response team on the first day of their response. The seep was stopped in early December, so further samples at that site were unnecessary.
  • Note that sampling has been discontinued at some locations, but that the chart shows all the samples taken to date.
  • Don’t overlook the other books attached to the spreadsheet (see the tabs at the bottom of the page). The Benzene Graphs tab has graphs that show the actual readings and the trend over time for benzene concentrations at different sampling locations. The individual readings fluctuate, but the trend is what is most important.

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