11/30/2011 09:23 am ET | Updated Mar 01, 2012

Gasoline-Like Sludge From Suncor Leaking Into Sand Creek, South Platte River; EPA Says Trench Is Working, Catching Sludge (VIDEO, UPDATES)

Just north of downtown Denver in Commerce City, environmental cleanup crews are battling an oily black sludge that has leaked into Sand Creek and now the South Platte River, Colorado's primary source of water, The Denver Post reports.

For at least a month the Colorado Department Public Health have known about the leak and for the last week toxic vapors from the leakage have forced Metro Wastewater Reclamation District workers to wear gas masks. However, nobody was checking the rivers or tried to stop the seepage until this week.

According to KJCT, the the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set up protective booms across Sand Creek have recovered about 50 gallons of suspected hydrocarbons, which could cause cancer.


The Associated Press reports that a 240-foot trench that was dug over the weekend is catching the gasoline-like sludge before more of it seeps further into Sand Creek and South Platte River. The amount that has already seeped into the river is still unclear.

Crews worked in temperatures below freezing to get the trench finished over the weekend, according to 9News.

The Denver Post reports that between 2,730 and 2,814 gallons of the ooze has been collected in the trench. The EPA emergency response manager Curtis Kimbel told the The Post, "it's working well."

Last week, Fox31 reported that the EPA confirmed that the black oily goo that had been seeping into Sand Creek and South Platte River was a gasoline-like substance containing benzene, a cancer-causing chemical.

According to The Denver Post Suncor Energy was named the source of the black goo that has been leaking into Sand Creek and the South Platte River and official cleanup orders were issued to the refinery. Late last week, EPA lab results indicated benzene concentrations ranging from 2,000 parts per billion where the sludge enters at Sand Creek to 480 parts per billion at the South Platte River -- all which was well above the 5 parts per billion national drinking-water standard. Curtis Kimbel, EPA emergency response manager, said to the Post:

The material appears to be coming from Suncor property, migrating under the Metro Wastewater property and daylighting in Sand Creek.

9News reports that the benzene levels in Sand Creek were 400 times higher than the amount tolerated for drinking water standards, last week.

There has been no update on the benzene levels as of Monday.

The results came from five samples taken along the creek near the Suncor Plant. And although the exact nature of the oily, leaked material is still unknown, the EPA thinks that the test results are further proof that the leak is some kind of refined gasoline.

Fox31 reported last week that Colorado state health officials were concerned that a broken underground pipe that leads to Suncor Energy could be the source of the oily discharge. Given that the break at the refinery is nearly a half-mile away from where the oily material was found seeping into Sand Creek, this could point to vast amounts of petroleum that may have leaked out.

Still, no public health warnings have been issued, but the EPA is urging people not to drink the water in Sand Creek.


9News reports that although the source is still unknown, Colorado Department of Public Health spokesman Warren Smith says that the Suncor Energy refinery is the likely source of the oily goo. Further testing could identify the chemicals and the source as early as Wednesday, Smith said.

Karen Edson, also with the EPA, said this about the leak into the South Platte, "We don't know how much went downstream. We do know now that it is contained." She suggested that it would be wise not to fish or swim in the river until the cleanup effort is further along.

Potential public health risks from the leak are still unknown.

The Suncor refinery has been under a corrective order for several decades because of contaminated groundwater stemming from the refinery, according to Fox31.

CBSNews reports that an employee of Suncor noticed an odor on Monday and sent cleanup crews even though the company has not been linked to the leak.

The South Platte River is a major source of drinking water, wildlife habitat and agricultural water for the Midwest, according to The Associated Press.