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

This is the third installment of a story on the Suncor oil spill. Read the second installment here.

Potential Impacts to Health & the Environment

Where to begin? There is the water the spill is seeping into, of course, the fish that live in the water, and the innumerable species that depend on it. There are the workers onsite at Suncor and those at the adjacent Denver Metro Wastewater Plant. There is the surrounding wildlife and the nearby human inhabitants. And that’s just at the spill site itself; extrapolate that downstream and you have all of the same scenarios to varying degrees potentially.

“Typically (the impact of a spill) depends on the volume, the amount of oil that’s spilled and the kind,” says Wes Tunnel, endowed chair of biodiversity and conservation science at Texas A&M. “If it’s a lighter fraction of refined oils, like diesel or gasoline, (those) are more toxic to organisms than crude.”

It just so happens that refined product is what is seeping into Sand Creek, and parts of it have dissolved into the groundwater. The dissolved compounds do evaporate over time, but that depends on the amount of water, temperature, and a lot of other things. Add everything together and it makes it near impossible to track the overall effects — both short-term and long-term — on an ecosystem or across various ecosystems.

But in general, most scientists and officials can agree on two things: 1) Measuring the effect of an oil spill is extremely complex. 2) An oil spill is bad, just about any way you spin it.

“Nobody wants these chemicals in the creek or the groundwater,” says Warren Smith, community involvement manager in the Hazardous Materials Waste Management Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE). “Benzene is a human carcinogen. Ethyl benzene affects the nervous system and human development. Toluene affects the cardiovascular and nervous systems. Xylenes affect human development as well as the liver, nervous system, and kidneys.” (For more details about these chemicals, check out the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.)

At one point, the CDPHE informed Suncor that they must stop using tap water at the refinery and sample all the taps in case they were compromised.  Blood testing was done on employees, though Suncor representatives say that was due to a separate matter and not the Sand Creek incident. Test results have not been released based on patient privacy.

Regarding Sand Creek (not considered a drinking source) and the S. Platte River (considered a drinking source), there is ongoing testing of benzene, ethyl benzene, toluene, and xylenes (BTEX results are listed below). Many of the benzene measurements are well above drinking standards, which is 5 parts per billion, but well under the Aquatic Life Warm Water standard which is 5,300 ppb.

Both numbers are a little misleading.

“The drinking water standard is designed to be protective of human health with lifetime exposure,” explains Dr. Howard Ramsdell, associate professor with the Center for Environmental Medicine at CSU. “Seventy years is the standard.”

The ALWW standard is designed to be protective of aquatic life.

“Up to that level would not be expected to cause aquatic organisms to die,” Ramsdell says of the 5,300 ppb mark. “But it isn’t out of the question that (lower) levels could have some impact.” (To date, there have been no bird or fish kills, according to both the CDPHE and EPA.)

But that standard is for benzene specifically, not the overall spill mixture.

“Oil is bad,” Ramsdell says simply. “There’s tons of literature on petroleum toxicity.”

So even though the spill has visually disappeared, it still slowly meanders its way through the groundwater and into Sand Creek, then downstream from there. What happens to everything it comes into contact with along the way? We’ll most likely never know for sure.

Apparently drinking water for Denver has never been in danger, according to the CDPHE, but one very telling study on cancer rates done in November 2003 on bordering neighborhoods may shed some light on potential long-term effects. And keep in mind these results came about long before this latest round of damaging pollution. (To be clear, this study didn’t focus solely on Suncor, but rather on the overall health of the nearby residents of Elyria, Clayton, Cole, Swansea, and Globeville.)

According to Tom Anthony, a long-time resident of Elyria and former president of the United Community Action Network neighborhood association that serves the poverty-stricken communities around Suncor, there were the following instances among the tabulated results of the study:

  • lung cancer, up to 165% of “expected;”
  • pancreatic cancer, up to 264% of “expected;”
  • cervical cancer, up to 256% of “expected;”
  • breast cancer, up to 363% of “expected;”
  • pharynx cancer, up to 607% of “expected;”
  • larynx cancer, up to 499% of “expected;”
  • brain and nervous system cancer, up to 379% of “expected;”
  • multiple myeloma, up to 416% of “expected;”

You would think that results as elevated as these might make officials logically wonder about the effects of industrial pollution.

“Yet the study concluded that these results were attributable to the poor health habits of the residents and their bad genes,” Anthony says. “Proximity to the interstate highway, the Suncor Refinery, and Xcel Cherokee coal burning power plant were not seen as contributing influences.”

Next week’s installment takes a look at where we go from here, wrapping up the series.

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.

Cancer Study Tabulated Results

  • lung cancer, up to 165% of “expected;”
  • pancreatic cancer, up to 264% of “expected;”
  • cervical cancer, up to 256% of “expected;”
  • breast cancer, up to 363% of “expected;”
  • pharynx cancer, up to 607% of “expected;”
  • larynx cancer, up to 499% of “expected;”
  • brain and nervous system cancer, up to 379% of “expected;”
  • multiple myeloma, up to 416% of “expected;”

Read the full study: Analysis of Diagnosed vs. Expected Cancer Cases In Residents of the Vasquez Boulevard/ I-70 Superfund Site Study Area (PDF)

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