Commerce City spill cited as reason for caution ahead of Front Range oil boom

Conservationists are pointing to oily muck likely oozing from a Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City toward the South Platte River as an example of what can go very wrong in the looming oil and gas boom along Colorado’s Front Range.

Suncor's Commerce City refinery.

Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates linked the spill, which is now being investigated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to the recent announcement by Anadarko Petroleum that up to a billion barrels of oil may be recoverable in the Wattenberg Field over the Niobrara Shale formation in Weld County.

WRA officials are concerned that the Suncor spill into Sand Creek north of Denver has already made it into the South Platte, which is a major water source for Colorado’s Front Range. Stepped up drilling by Anadarko and other companies in the state’s most populous areas could have similar consequences, the group argues.

“Municipal water systems are designed to treat bacteria and pathogens, but not hydrocarbons like those that might come from an oil refinery,” said Drew Beckwith, WRA’s water policy manager. “That’s not to say that the water can’t be kept safe, but we need to consider the potential consequences before something like this happens on a larger scale. The potential for problems becomes exponentially greater as drilling moves closer to population centers.”

The Denver Post reports state health officials have known about the problem in Commerce City for at least a month and that workers at a nearby wastewater treatment facility have been wearing respirators for a week because of toxic vapors. A fisherman noticed the spill on Sunday, blogged about it, which led to a reader in Idaho calling the Denver Post.

That prompted an EPA investigation Monday and finally a report of the incident by Suncor itself. The source of the spill is still being investigated, but Suncor officials admit the material is coming out of the ground around its facility.

Suncor’s refinery, which it acquired from Conoco, handles some of the tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, that was the subject of so much controversy this summer during the Keystone XL pipeline expansion battle. The tar sands oil comes to Commerce City via an existing pipeline and is then refined by Suncor and sold as gasoline at nearly 270 Shell and Phillips 66 stations around Colorado.

According to WRA, the Suncor refinery has been repeatedly cited by both the state and the feds for polluting Sand Creek. EPA and Suncor officials met at the site Tuesday night and decided to dig a trench to keep the oily goo from flowing into the Platte, the Post reported today, but state health officials were not on scene because they were handling media calls.

“We can’t speculate on the overall contamination levels that might reach water and food supplies, but there is no ‘acceptable’ amount,” said WRA’s Beckwith. “Put it this way: There is a reason you’ve never heard someone say, ‘I’d like some more oil in my water, please.’”

WRA created a map showing how oil contamination can reach food and water supplies.

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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