Two instances of oily muck within eight days on Sand Creek near the Suncor Energy oil refinery have state health officials concerned a 20-year-old underground clay wall that holds back toxic chemicals is failing.
More than a year ago, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment ordered Suncor to replace the wall, which runs for 2,000 feet about 30 feet down parallel to the creek in Commerce City, records show. That mandate came after a similar oil slick, and Suncor is supposed to start designing a fix for the wall at the end of this July.
“The refinery is finalizing plans to improve its perimeter barrier wall system and is working with CDPHE on these plans. Work is expected to be completed in 2021 and will result in a more effective barrier system along Sand Creek,” Suncor spokeswoman Mita Adesanya said in an email.
It’s a sensitive moment for Suncor. Colorado officials are reviewing the company’s applications to renew outdated operating permits. Equipment failures and other breakdowns at the refinery led to 15 incidents between March 27 and April 22 this year, and over the past five years, the refinery has had more than 100 malfunctions that caused air pollution to exceed permit limits. Colorado since 2011 has settled at least 10 enforcement cases against Suncor.
Suncor officials said Friday in an email they are investigating the cause of the most recent oil slicks, which happened May 22 and May 31 along the Sand Creek public bike path and greenway that’s popular for fishing.
Suncor and state officials don’t expect any lasting impacts on the creek and wildlife, but “groundwater data trends were indicating the effectiveness of the wall is declining,” according to a June 2 email obtained by The Denver Post sent from Jennifer Opila, director of CDPHE’s Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division, to a local government official.
The cause of the May 22 spill hasn’t been determined, Opila said in the email, though it could be because of “a loss of power on May 20” that shut down a water-pumping system that removes the chemicals that collect on the refinery side of the wall, she said.
“During this shut down, groundwater levels likely increased,” she wrote, and petrochemicals “flowed over the top of and/or through the wall.” An emergency generator was installed to pump out the contaminated groundwater from the refinery side of the wall.
On May 31, a fuel spill at the refinery flowed down a road, into an open-air basin and then reached the creek, according to state officials. Suncor deployed three orange booms and vacuum trucks to clean it up.
Along the greenway Thursday, fisherman Mike Medina cast his line for carp in the Burlington irrigation ditch, near the spill site.
“One quart of oil can contaminate 250,000 gallons of water,” Medina said. “Should we be OK eating food that had oil go into it? If it’s not OK to have any oil go into the creek, why should we be OK with just a little of it?”
Based in Calgary, Suncor processes crude oil from around the Rocky Mountain region and imported from the oil sands of northern Canada, converting it to gasoline, diesel, asphalt and jet fuel that is piped to Denver International Airport.
For years, Colorado health inspectors have directed Suncor to pump and treat contaminated groundwater on the refinery side to prevent leakage into Sand Creek, which flows within a quarter-mile of the refinery into the South Platte River — the main water source for northeastern Colorado and western Nebraska.
State orders dating to 2007 require maintenance of the wall and pumping of contaminated groundwater. Those orders were strengthened after a 2011 spill that darkened Sand Creek and led to federal and state orders for Suncor to test Sand Creek and South Platte River water for chemicals including benzene, a cancer-causing petrochemical.
Benzene levels around the time of that spill measured as high as 3,900 parts per billion in groundwater at the refinery, state records show; that’s most than the federal drinking water standard of 5 ppb. Colorado’s current water quality standards, which are relaxed in industrial zones, allow benzene in Sand Creek at up to 5,300 ppb.
The benzene levels found in a pipe that discharges into Sand Creek initially spiked above Suncor’s permit limits during the first week of June, state officials said, but quickly dissipated.
Suncor officials have been touting their transparency in recent months. On Thursday, a post on the company’s website said crews on May 31 “detected a sheen in a small section of Sand Creek along the refinery’s property, in the same location as originally observed on May 22.”
Adams County Commissioner Eva Henry said commissioners “had to reach out to Suncor and ask ‘what’s going on’” with the recent oil slicks.
“Suncor has always been a frustration for all of us. They need to start putting some money into infrastructure to stop these ridiculous leaks and breakdowns they have,” Henry said. “They really do not have any stake in our community at all. I feel that they really don’t care.”
Fellow commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said the frequent problems — especially power outages that lead to either air or water pollution — point to a need for better precautions: “This is a pattern of failure that calls for better risk management.”
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