Suncor Tar Sands Refinery Leaks Crude into South Platte River

by Anthony Swift, reposted from NRDC’s Switchboard

Colorado officials fear that vast amounts of petroleum have been leaking into the South Platte River from a broken pipeline at a refinery operated by tar sands producer Suncor.

It is not yet clear how long oil has been leaking into the South Platte River, how much has been spilled or what substance was spilled. State officials are currently testing the water on the South Platte River, a major source of drinking water, wildlife habitat and agricultural water for Colorado and the Midwest. Meanwhile, levels of benzene and volatile organic compounds at the nearby Denver Metro Wastewater plant required a partial closure.

Suncor is the oldest tar sands producers, up to 90% of its production comprised of tar sands bitumen. The company uses its Colorado refinery to process some of the heavy tar sands coming from the Express and Platte pipelines. At a time when companies like TransCanada and Enbridge are proposing to build tar sands infrastructure through our rivers and water resources—and some in Congress are trying to speed up the process by skipping environmental review—this spill provides another sad example of what can go wrong with these projects.

The spill was discovered on Sunday morning by Trevor Tanner, a fisherman who saw sheen on the South Platte River and said the area smelled like a gas station. In his account:

I walked several hundred feet up Sand-Creek and there was an oil sheen the whole way and there was even a weird milky chocolaty sludge trapped in the small back-eddy below the confluence.  My fly smelled like gasoline.  My fingers smelled like gasoline.  I could see micro-currents and upwells in the water column that you usually just can’t see.  Something was terribly wrong.

When Mr. Tanner found the hotline number and called it, the spill response coordinator initially wanted him to call back in twenty minutes. On Monday officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) arrived onsite and Suncor reported a leak. On Tuesday evening Suncor and EPA officials decided to dig a trench. This afternoon, EPA officials announced that three small booms erected on a bank of Sannd Creek appear to be containing the oil and preventing further contamination.

The extent of the contamination is still unclear. If the leak involves tar sands diluted bitumen, the contamination could be more severe. Tar sands diluted bitumen spills are associated with significantly more submerged oil which cannot be contained by surface booms. Spill responders are still struggling to handle the submerged oil at Enbridge’s Kalamazoo oil spill. However, this spill shows the weakness in spill response and is yet another example of the very real risks inherent in tar sands infrastructure projects.

Anthony Swift is an attorney with the International Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. This piece was originally published at NRDC’s Switchboard blog.

15 Responses to Suncor Tar Sands Refinery Leaks Crude into South Platte River

  1. Steve Lounsbury says:

    So all the whooey that these miserable bastards spread about being environmentally conscious is just that.



  2. Joan Savage says:

    The Denver Post has other detailed information about the water contamination, including a map.

    Cleanup crews attack toxic goo in South Platte north of Denver
    Updated: 11/30/2011 08:57:11 AM MST
    By Bruce Finley
    The Denver Post

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    If an Exxon or Chevron exec toured the South Platte and smelled the oil, he would be giddy with joy. That smells like money to those guys, and poisoned drinking water is just something the suckers have to deal with.
    The big boys drink single malt and bottled water.

  4. oggy bleacher says:

    The North Dakota hydrofracking fields are on the Yellowstone and Missouri confluence. Let’s cross our fingers and hope the same spill doesn’t happen there.

  5. Yet another example why oil companies must not be allowed to get their own way. They care little for the environment, and are unable to clean up their mess. When a spill like this occurs, it pollutes the water that people drink, the food that people eat, the wildlife and the ecosystems. They can pollute aquifers, making water unsafe to drink, and devastating whole ecosystems, and they get a slap on the wrist. They make trillions of dollars by polluting us and our environment, give millions to politicians who then help them with their dirty plans. It’s time someone made it clear that enough is enough. No longer do we want our land, food and water contaminated. We need to move away from oil, not use dirtier and dirtier sources of oil. That is madness, benefitting the oil bosses at the expense of everyone’s future. Who really wants a polluted world? Well, that’s what we’re getting, because people don’t care enough to stop it. Obama, do something for the planet, before it’s too late!!

  6. Dan Ives says:

    I drive by this refinery all the time, and it always smells like gas station. It’s horrible.

  7. Micah Parkin says:

    Very well said all, especially Martin Bailey. This insanity needs to stop and Suncor needs to go. We the people have to stand up and demand action! Until then, the unconscionable status quo will continue to prevail.

  8. m says:

    Now you all know what the Natives have been saying for years, oil sands extraction is never a good thing no matter how much money is givin for contracts to mop up and change their garbage cans after them. Some will say at least they have jobs, but no land to hunt, fish and trap…yes Natives still hunt, fish and trap in canada. Not everyone wants a car or platsic pot to piss in. If you think your doing them a favour, in fact they doign us a favour by resisting their develoment…look around it ain’t as prestine as it once was like 60 years ago.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Money is the substitute for a soul, for a conscience, for human empathy, for those who worship it.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Hydration is overrated. Human health is both a commodity and an ‘externality’, when it is someone else’s health.

  11. LMA says:

    Good news today from B.C. where more than 80 First Nations have signed a declaration affirming their strong opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline. In a direct challenge to Canadian PM Harper, prominent native leader, Chief Jackie Thomas, is quoted in, as saying “We will be the wall that Enbridge cannot break through”. The First Nations and environmental groups are preparing to confront Harper and his big oil buddies in B.C., and many Canadians, myself included, are cheering them on.

  12. As a fellow Canadian, that is amazing news. Thank you. Now let’s see what the EU says today about labeling tar sands as “dirty oil”. If that happens, and I truly hope it does, the expansion of the tar sands will be in trouble. And that’s a good thing.

  13. JH says:

    It’s as though a few people went off half-cocked here. First, perhaps waiting to see how big the spill was is a good idea. Any oil spilled is a bad thing, but let’s not make it a gulf spill disaster yet. It’s not as though these companies intentionally go out to ruin someone else’s environment.

    The oil sands takes a lot of heat. You know, like the girl who gets singled out in high school and gets labelled by someone who is into a power play, or wants someone to pick on. And then everyone piles on via hearsay – makes them feel important. If climate change is part of the equation (rather than picking on foreign producers – which, by the way, are backed by a lot of U.S. capital), why are there so few stories on U.S. coal? Perhaps because one would come under fire for upping the pressure… on U.S. jobs, and, really, for attacking U.S. production of electricity?

    Remember, U.S. production of greenhouse gases is about 20%+ of world total (much of that from coal) while that coming from the oilsands is about 100th of that amount, or about 0.2% of world total. (And yes, there are other environmental concerns.)

    And, too, before you boot all foreign produced oil out of the country are you: ready to walk everywhere you go? Remember even if you only use public transit, it uses diesel, and the tires come from oil. If you only ride your bike, the tires it uses also come from oil as do any plastic parts. It took power to make it, which, right now, likely requires a fossil fuel.

    Is it time to be off the oil standard (and certainly off the coal standard)? Yes, but it’s not going to happen overnight.

    Before ranting about something of which you only have partial knowledge, take the time to become better informed. It is an oil leak, but even little amounts can look bad out proportion to what they are (and that’s not to say that this one will be insignificant – we don’t know yet).

    Remember, if you wish to see the oilsands plants out of business, then you’ll have to stop using their products: no driving, no riding, no cycling, and if your electrical utility burns oil then no heat or air conditioning.

    Perhaps it’s time to read about Suncor, and gets some details about the company, and see what they’re up to in all facets of their business (and the same for other plants). Let’s also wait to see what they’re response is to the spill. Remember, as imperfect as they are, pipelines – if we have to live with oil – are still the safest way to transport the stuff. And no matter how good the technology… stuff happens.

    Are you writing to your representatives to lobby for greener technologies? More than once? Doing that, and stopping using anything made from oil is the only way it’ll stop being used (and extracted).

  14. Tom says:

    To JH: Your response was more even keeled toward the fossil fuel industry than most, although a few points stood out. I think you are taking a protectionist approach for the wrong reasons. People aren’t against tar sands because it is a foreign based fuel source per se. It just happens to be one of the most inefficient and dirty of the options available, and is going backwards. Yes coal is absurdly dirty as well, and your question as to “why are there so few stories on U.S. coal?” I guess you’re not reading the same sources of many of us. There have been hundreds of articles exposing the externalized costs of coal over the past several years on everything from the devastation of mountain top mining, sludge spills, endless transport, and burning of coal, both in the U.S. and worldwide with particular emphasis on China’s increases and Australia’s contradictions in being one of the largest coal exporter and first hand Climate crisis victim. I won’t get into more detail here, but you put forth a false argument on that one. Yes, it is ultimately up to each one of us to use less of everything, and get the most efficient options available. Conservation and efficiency are the first and second options for individuals, but intelligent system design and political/economic incentives for cleaner power sources are necessary from the top as well. The subsidies and tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry are bordering on criminal at this point. The argument that it creates jobs is short sighted at best. There is no economy on a dead planet. When one looks away from political or economic short term thinking and lift your gaze to see how the biosphere works, it becomes a bit more sane to re-distribute the incentives to inspire cleaner ways of living on a limited planet with limited carrying capacity. This leads one to true answers that will become evident when we have exhausted all of our self-serving political arguments and look around at what remains. Any system, including a single power plant, or the carbon cycle of the planet all have chaos built into them. When we as a society choose to rely on power systems like Coal, Oil, and Nuclear, we are basically agreeing that when the inevitable chaos hits each of those systems, are we OK with the outcomes? i.e. Coal + chaos = climate, water, and ecosystem disruption / Oil+chaos = much of the same / Nuclear+chaos= recent disaster in Japan for example, as well as nuclear waste all around. So aren’t we smart enough to see how de-centralized cleaner options are more intelligent options in the face of chaos? Try a wind storm that damages someone’s solar panels on the roof of their well insulated home. (doesn’t effect anyone else.) Although there is relevant date on the EROI (energy returned on energy invested) on any source of power (and food for that matter) we need to start focusing on the ones that don’t pollute the commons as much. Because as you so rightly stated: “And no matter how good the technology… stuff happens.”

  15. a little confused says:

    Well said JH. I am very sick of Americans raving about tar sands in regards to climate change and atmospheric carbon. Coal burning…enough said.