Toxic Oil in a Fly Fishing Mecca

Will Rice

When Colorado fisherman Trevor Tanner waded out into Sand Creek on Sunday, November 27, he wasn’t expecting to cast his line into toxic oil grime.

“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,” Tanner said. “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.”

Tanner reported the sheen to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), who went to Sand Creek to investigate further, but claimed they were unable to find an oil sheen on the water. Unsatisfied by their response, Tanner posted a blog on his site,, to express his concern about the oil.

“This morning was awful,” he wrote. “I am looking for the words to describe it and can’t. To put it shortly I am absolutely 100% positive I witnessed a petroleum discharge or dump of some kind in Sand Creek flowing into the South Platte.” The South Platte River in central Colorado which travels through several lakes and reservoirs, is considered “the premier fishery in Colorado.” He continued that, “For some foolish reason I pictured environmental cops showing up with sirens blazing. Three to four hours later I got the call that they were there and didn’t smell anything or see any sheen on the water… I am worrying pretty hard right now, though. I can’t get that sheen and smell out of my mind. Not to mention 60 of my favorite carp huddled together in what I hope was not desperation.”

Tanner’s blog post was soon read by a man in Boise, Idaho, who then called The Denver Post. Denver Post journalist Bruce Finley proceeded to contact Curtis Kimbel, an emergency response manager with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). When Kimbel was dispatched to Sand Creek that following Monday, he smelled gasoline and was able to locate the sheen, which he reported “appears to be coming from Suncor property,” or precisely, an underground ruptured pipe leading to Canadian oil giant Suncor Energy’s Commerce City refinery. A cleanup response was launched the same day.

Despite frigid temperatures and snow, the construction crew coordinated by Suncor, EPA and the CDPHE continues to build dams, dig trenches and install floating barriers to contain the spill and prevent further contamination from floating down the South Platte. Suncor anticipates the blockades will be completed sometime this week. “We’re working to make things right,” said John Gallagher, vice president of Suncor Energy USA.

Though no public health warnings have been issued, EPA water sample tests taken Tuesday detected high levels of extremely dangerous chemical benzene, a natural component in gasoline that has been linked to leukemia, throughout the contamination zone. Benzene concentrations were found to range from 2,000 parts per billion (ppb), where the sludge enters Sand Creek, to 480 ppb, where the creek enters the South Platte River — all well above the 5 ppb national drinking water standard.

“We don’t want anybody drinking water in Sand Creek,” Kimbel cautioned.

By order of Colorado’s Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division, Suncor must now conduct daily inspections along Sand Creek, sample water along the creek, monitor the air at the nearby Denver Metro Wastewater plant (for benzene and additional gasoline toxins like ethylbenzene, toluene and xylenes) and install ventilation systems if necessary, investigate groundwater contamination under the plant, install a system to intercept all liquids entering Sand Creek by December 31st and clean up any oil on the banks of Sand Creek and the South Platte River by March.

“We have accepted their order and are reviewing it in detail,” Gallagher reported. “We don’t see anything on there that we can’t do.”

Fellow Canadian oil companies Enbridge and TransCanada have also had recent spills on American soil where a third party was needed to notify authorities. Tanner describes his experience with the Suncor spill as “extremely distressing,” writing on his blog that “The [Denver South Platte] is my river, my shrine, my temple and being the one to find it being desecrated was crushing.”