Suncor vs. The South Platte

One year of limited mitigation efforts and wrist-splaps for the energy firm that continues to lace the DSP with toxic levels of benzene

Today marks exactly 365 days since Denver-based angler Trevor Tanner noticed an oil sheen flowing from Sand Creek into the South Platte River just downstream of the Suncor oil refinery at Commerce City. And in that time a lot has gone on—both at ground zero and along the DSP itself.

After my initial story ran, it was later revealed that several people were aware of the spill long before Tanner raised the alarm. Bruce Finley from The Denver Post heeded the call, and the proverbial whistle was blown on the whole situation.

Since then at least 17 stories have been published in The Denver Post about the Suncor spill. In addition, articles have appeared in the Denver Business Journal as well as a number of television broadcasts by local Denver stations. Back in late May, Denver Post reporter Karen E. Crummy wrote:

“Six months after Suncor Energy's oil refinery contaminated Sand Creek and nearby property, obstacles remain in containing the pollution, and a full cleanup may be years away. Suncor and health officials don't know how long and at what rate the refinery pipe was leaking, making it impossible to determine how much liquid was released. However, the health department characterizes the spill as "serious and significant." Over the past few months, 785,320 gallons of contaminants — about the amount that could fill an Olympic swimming pool — have been pulled from the groundwater. That doesn't include the pollution that already went into Sand Creek.”

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She pointed out where we all had it wrong early on.

“By the time a fisherman noticed an oil sheen on the surface of Sand Creek on Nov. 27, both Suncor and the health department had known for months that polluted groundwater from the refinery was contaminating large areas on- and off-site and that the ‘situation is not under control,’ according to a health department summary of events.

“The pollution included benzene, an organic compound. Long-term benzene exposure can cause anemia and leukemia, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Symptoms often take years to appear.”

So what exactly is Suncor spending to clean up its mess? About a million bucks.

On the surface, $1M in mitigation and clean up efforts sounds like a healthy chunk of change. Despite the expenditure, Suncor says it will likely NOT meet the Colorado State Regulations for drinking water standards, which take effect in May 2013.

“We have completed several extensive trenching systems both on our property and nearby adjacent property,” says company spokesperson, Lisha Burnett. “These trenching systems are designed to block and recover contaminants from the soil, preventing migration into nearby Sand Creek and the South Platte River. We have also installed soil vapor extraction and air sparge systems designed to remove or deplete underground contaminants. We believe these permanent solutions will address the problem. Water quality in Sand Creek and the South Platte is showing improvement. We need to allow these systems to continue to work, collect some data and determine if, over time, these systems will prove to be enough. We expect these systems will enable us to meet the required standards for these waterways. But, it will take time to fully meet drinking water quality.”

Here is the rub: during this entire debacle oil-refining production has not ceased for a single day. The Suncor site continues to crank out 90,000 barrels of refined crude daily—which I understand is great for shareholders, but not the river, the residents who drink the water downstream, the crops that get irrigated by the South Platte’s diverted flows, or the carp and trout that swim it.

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“The Sand Creek incident and our remediation efforts as a result of Sand Creek have not impacted Suncor's Commerce City refinery in terms of our plant operations,” Burnett says. “In fact, this year our production has been on budget, while also completing and commissioning several large capital projects at the refinery as well. The refinery has not closed down due to Sand Creek and our ongoing efforts to manage the underground remediation work. Suncor’s significant efforts and resources have not been spared to achieve our remediation objectives.”

For context, I think it is important to understand a little bit about Suncor Energy and how they were positioned financially at the end of 2011 during the time of this spill. You can read it for yourself in its 2011 publicly available financial report.

This is an excerpt from the Chairmen’s opening statement: “When I first joined the company, Suncor had revenues of about $1.5 billion,” said CEO Rick George. “In 2011, Suncor’s revenues were almost $40 billion, and our market capitalization was nearing $50 billion.”

When you compare the $1M band-aid being applied to this environmental gash to the yearly revenues generated by this plant and Suncor as a corporate entity, the equation doesn’t add up. Would it be too much to ask to divert resources, money, efforts and potential profit margins to concentrate on fixing this problem? How about halting crude oil production for six months to fix the problem? Is that too much to ask?

In May 2013 Suncor must prove that its discharge into Sand Creek and the Denver South Platte River has a benzene concentration of less than 5 parts per billion (ppb). According to a recent article in The Denver Post, the current levels show that benzene is still entering Sand Creek and the South Platte at 145 ppb just below the confluence.

That's less than the benzene levels averaging above 200 ppb earlier in the year. But it’s still 29 times higher than the 5 ppb federal health standard.

Here is Suncor’s take on the current situation and its efforts to date:

“Identifying and implementing solutions to address the situation at Sand Creek has been a significant and complex challenge,” Burnett says. “The deadline to meet the drinking water standards next year is a very aggressive and challenging goal, and we are not certain that it can be achieved in that timeframe.

“Since we first discovered the problem, we have addressed it with vigor. And, we will continue to do so,” she adds. “Since day one of this event, we have acted with four basic principles foremost in our minds: protecting our people and the community, protecting the environment, ensuring our stakeholders remain informed, and doing everything in our ability to correct the problem. Suncor is fully committed to rectify this problem and protecting the environment; we will continue to do what it takes to make the situation right.”

This sounds great, but a year after the initial alarm was raised the problem isn’t fixed and pollutants continue to flow. I’ve worked at large corporations that record their revenues with a capital "B". I know that significant and powerful things can happen when the right amount of money, time, and resources are focused properly at a problem. The question that I ask, and I think everyone who lives in Colorado should ask: is the right amount of money being spent to fix this problem? Are the right resources spending an adequate amount of time to get the water within standards and the problem fixed at this site once and for all?

“If there’s one motto I’ve tried to live by during my two decades at the helm of Suncor Energy, it’s that actions speak louder than words,” opined George in his opening statements to shareholders. “In business, as in other aspects of anyone’s life, making promises is easy—delivering results is much harder.”

Well put sir. So a year has come and gone. Unfortunately, the more things change... the more things stay the same.

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