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

This is the fourth and final installment of a story on the Suncor oil spill. Read the third installment here.

Where Do We Go from Here?

There are a lot of people who are understandably very angry about the Suncor oil spill, along with what they perceive as a subpar clean-up effort. To them, this is a precursor for the upcoming battle over increasing amounts of oil extraction and fracking near urban areas.

“There’s a big lesson in this spill for what’s going on around the state,” says Gary Wockner, Colorado program director for Clean Water Action. “Once you contaminate groundwater it is extremely difficult, almost impossible, to clean up.”

Some people are clamoring for legal action against Suncor, along with massive fines. Some want the refinery closed for good. None of those things are likely to happen though.

“The law requires us to consider a whole bunch of factors,” explains Warren Smith, community involvement manager in the Hazardous Materials Waste Management Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE), when considering if any action will be brought against Suncor. “Was this willful or negligent? Did they lie about it? Have they been recalcitrant or fighting us?

“That’s not the case. They have been up front about it; they have been meeting our deadlines. It’s an industrial accident.”

For the people who live in the surrounding neighborhoods — Elyria, Swansea, Globeville, Commerce City — that’s not good enough. Folks in the first three places especially, where Internet connectivity is still a rarity, bear the brunt of it.

“The people fighting for the quality of (this area) seem to be a scattering of individuals in these poor neighborhoods that have no support structure to go up against these huge industrial organizations,” says Tom Anthony, a long-time resident of Elyria and former president of the United Community Action Network neighborhood association that serves the area. “You’re not going to shut down that refinery, but it has to be managed within safe limits. And if it takes more push-back from the neighbors to make that happen, then that needs to happen. It’s a dangerous business, cracking petroleum, and there are a lot of people who get sick from it.”

At the end of the day, even those who are most impacted by the spill realize the oil and gas industry isn’t going to go away anytime soon. They just want better safeguards, better accountability, a better future for their children.

“That spill has been there for a long time,” says Wockner, resigned but hopeful.  “All we can do is try to learn from the mistake and make sure that oil and gas polluters can’t do this, can’t make this kind of mess again in Colorado.”

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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