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Suncor tar sands refinery leaks crude into South Platte River

Anthony Swift

Posted November 30, 2011

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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.

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conusamDec 1 2011 09:03 AM

Censorship is alive and well right here!!!!

David DeRemusDec 2 2011 12:27 AM

It is notable that again, a leak from a major pipeline carrying toxins and potentially poisonous gases , was not discovered by the pipeline workers or sensors or a leak detection system (if they even have such a thing) but again spotted by a local, this time a fisherman.

This is very damning evidence of the industry wide lack of "self-policing" and speaks volumes for their total disregard for the people who live, work or for whatever reasons happen to be in the area and for the environment.

PeterDec 2 2011 03:28 PM

"Days after an oily sheen appeared on a Colorado river and kicked up environmental scrutiny of Alberta's oilsands, CTV News has learned the only connection to Alberta, is the company that owns the refinery behind the leak.

Earlier this week, an oily substance was found in the South Platte River, which is a source of drinking water for the greater Denver area.

Calgary-based Suncor has since admitted the leak came from their Commerce City refinery in Colorado.

The seepage sparked a firestorm of scrutiny from environmental groups – early reports pinned the blame on crude from Alberta's oilsands.

Alberta's Energy Minister wasn't surprised by the early blame placed on Alberta's oilsands.

"Every oil spill, every accident in the United States is going to be blamed on Alberta in the next eighteen months," Minister Ted Morton said. "So get used to exaggeration."

The province said their information states the product used at that refinery comes from Wyoming.

Suncor did not return calls from CTV News requesting an interview.

"I don't think every oil spill will be blamed on Alberta," Greenpeace spokesperson Mike Hudema said. "But there are definitely a number of spills that have happened due to tar sands crude flowing through pipelines,

"That is the reason that you are seeing so many groups in Canada and the U.S. opposing these pipelines."

janjammDec 3 2011 02:38 PM

The point is not so much WHO has caused the leak, but, rather, that the pipelines are just not safe, ESPECIALLY those crossing or near rivers, watersheds and aquifers. This is the point to be made.

BSJan 24 2012 09:22 PM

The mere fact that you are singling out one specific pipeline leak is actually evidence that pipelines are safer than ever.

The number of barrels spilled per barrel shipped has declined by a factor of 3x in recent years, even as the gov't has lowered the volume threshold at which a leak is considered significant.

If this one pipeline has leaked oil for a long time, this reflects only on the operator of this particular pipeline. Reputable pipeline operators follow the rules and measure flow in and out of their systems to an accuracy of +/- 0.5%. Leaks are easily found via various high-tech and low-tech means. There is absolutely no excuse for a leak going undetected (or unreported). But this does not at all represent the pipeline industry as a whole.

Craig GerlachApr 7 2012 12:58 AM

" Reputable pipeline operators follow the rules and measure flow in and out of their systems to an accuracy of +/- 0.5%"
If 1 million gallons passed through a pipeline 5000 gallons would be an acceptable loss, aka leakage into the environment, by whose standards? Not mine... If 1 gallon leaks out it is too much.

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