Suncor Spill: South Platte River contamination is a reminder of weaknesses in spill detection

Details continue to emerge regarding the oil spill at Suncor's refinery in Commerce City. Water test results of the Sand Creek and South Platte River have found benzene, a carcinogenic chemical associate with oil which is toxic in minute levels, at levels well in excess of safety standards. Like the Enbridge spill in Kalamazoo, TransCanada's Keystone spill in South Dakota and so many other recent spills, a third party had to identify the problem and notify authorities. While officials still are not certain what type of crude has spilled, how much of it has leaked or what caused the leak, this spill has brought additional scrutiny on some critical gaps in national spill detection, monitoring and response.

Alberta’s Energy Minister Ted Morton has responded to this incident by saying tar sands crude could not be involved in the release because Suncor’s Commerce City refinery only processes Wyoming crude. This isn’t actually true.  In 2006, Suncor spent $530 million to allow it to process up to 15,000 barrels per day (bpd) of tar sands. John Gallagher, Suncor’s Vice President of Refining, confirmed that tar sands crude from Alberta makes up 10 to 15 percent of the product processed at Suncor’s Commerce City plant. This is another indication that regulators need to have a better handle on what product is moving on which pipelines – information that is critical to recognizing emerging safety problems and responding to spills.

Of course, it is too early to say what type of hydrocarbon is leaking, partly because officials still haven’t confirmed the precise location of the leak, though initial analysis points to a ruptured underground pipe leading to the refinery. But that in itself illustrates a systematic problem. Spill responders need to know what they’re dealing with both to ensure their safety and effectiveness. It took weeks and an investigation for Enbridge to disclose that tar sands was flowing in its pipeline during the Kalamazoo spill. Federal pipeline regulators were not aware Exxon’s Silver Tip pipeline, which spilled 40,000 gallons into the Yellowstone River, was moving both tar sands and conventional crudes.

The other issue revealed by the Suncor spill is the lack of effective spill detection and response. Mr. Tanner, the fisherman who discovered the spill, describes a detailed timeline that starts with him discovering the spill at 9 AM on Sunday morning, informing spills responders at 10 AM and with mitigation starting at some point on Monday evening. But for a spill response to actually happen, Mr. Tanner had to spend an hour working with an emergency response hotline, write a blog about the lack of response that evening which was read by a friend the next day who told a journalist who told the EPA. The EPA then sent someone to investigate and Suncor reported the spill.

Meanwhile, benzene and other hydrocarbons have contaminated water supply sources for communities north of Denver. EPA found benzene levels were five hundred times safe levels and nearly a hundred times safe drinking levels at the confluence of the South Platte River. Possibly most disturbing, after mitigation measures had been put in place, benzene concentrations on the other side of the South Platte River were twenty times safe drinking levels.  

The lack of detection, the lethargic response and attempts to dismiss the contamination of a major American river are all very concerning. Surely we can do better than this. And if not, then we need to have an upfront conversation about the risks that these projects entail. After all, we can’t always be so lucky as to have good Samaritan fishermen around to raise the alarm.