Benzene 101 and What Lies Beneath, By Will Rice

Will Rice for Sage fly fish

Here’s the second entry in a series about the situation down on the South Platte and Sand Creek written by Will Rice.

Prior to this disaster, I’m not sure I knew what benzene was – or the fact that it could end up in the water where I wet waded on hot summer days. If you are on the fence about Benzene or are not up to speed on what it is all about, here are a few things you should know: petroleum ether, also known as benzene is a group of various volatile, highly flammable, liquid hydrocarbon mixtures used chiefly as nonpolar solvents. During the Second World War some extermination camps experimented by killing people with benzene injections. Benzene causes cancer. Benzene is useful for removing the gum from self-adhesive stamps.

Will Rice Oil Sheen on South Platte

National Standard for benzene content in drinking water: 5 parts per billion ppb
Benzene levels on November 28th in Sand Creek: 120,000 ppb
Benzene levels on December 27th: 640 ppb
Benzene level on January 6th 2012: 190 ppb
Benzene levels on January 9th: 720 ppb

It is clear from recent testing that the initial problem has improved, but we’re certainly not out of the woods yet. How could we be? No one at the EPA or Suncor has found the source of the petroleum yet – or figured out how to stop the flow.

What stuns me about the situation is that it was detected at all. I feel lucky as an angler and a resident of Denver that the stars aligned in such a way that there was: 1) a fly angler… 2) who was fishing for carp… 3) in November… 4) who was smart enough to know something was wrong and who contacted the proper authorities.

In additional to being a great carp fishery, the South Platte river is also the main water source for North Eastern Colorado and provides drinking water to other municipalities and townships outside of Denver (i.e. the City of Aurora and its’ 335,000 residents).

Will Rice - Carp Fishing

I’ve been down to the site a few times since my initial visit after the disaster was first discovered. In early January, Trevor Tanner and I inspected the mitigation activity and the surrounding environment. There was both good news and bad news to report.

The pungent gasoline smell that was rich in the air a few days into the initial recovery effort: gone.

Will Rice - Benzene Smelling Rocks

The blue petroleum blooms that I had seen moving from Sand Creek into the main stem of the South Platte a few weeks before were no longer visible to the naked eye while standing on the bank.

The situation seemed to be improving – at least after initial inspection.

So here is the bad news: after moving 30 feet down from the confluence of Sand Creek and the South Platte river and stepped into the the water small globs of petroleum kicked up from the river’s bottom. I lifted a rock that was about the size of a baseball from the river and smelled the portion that was submerged in the sand and mud. It smelled like the gas cap from my 4Runner. I lifted another rock and the petroleum bloom that came to the surface was the size of a large pizza.

Will Rice - Conservation story for Sage Fly Fish

There has been some action from the Government and other folks who should be paying attention.

Here are a few excerpts from from the December 1, 2011 Notice of Determination issued from John W. Hickenlooper, Governor, issued to Mr. Gregory P Fletcher, Senior Remediation Advisor at Suncor Energy:

• Suncor Energy shall conduct daily inspection along Sand Creek and the confluence with the South Platte River.

• Suncor Energy shall establish surface water sampling points along the south bank of Sand Creek and the South Platte River.

• By no later than December 31 2011 Suncor Energy shall have constructed and commenced operation of an engineered system that intercept all light non aqueous phase liquid before it has an opportunity to daylight and enter Sand Creek.

• Suncor Energy shall immediately begin investigating groundwater beneath the DMWTP for two primary purposes. 1 define all areas where the dissolved phase contamination is enter Sand Creek and the South Platte river 2) define all areas where LNAPL may be entering Sand Creek between int confluence with the South Platte Rive rand ground water monitoring wells.

• Suncor Energy shall cleanup all signs of staining by oil that may have coated the banks of both Sand Creek and the South Platte River including solid an vegetation. This cleanup must be completed by no later than March 1, 2012.

(Full text of the initial response and mandates)

I predict the mitigation and clean up efforts of this disaster will need to continue on for many years. As anglers, we’ll monitor the situation to ensure these efforts to fix the situation continue.

A few weeks ago I stood on the bridge just down from the disaster site and watched big fish ease back and forth in the current. The fish held on the far bank, as far away as he could get from Sand Creek. Ducks bobbed in the water, not far downstream. I had a rod in my hand but I knew I would not fish. Most likely, I will not fish this section for some time. The water upstream moved down at a steady pace. I shook my head and began moving in that direction – upstream – looking for a new place to fish on the South Platte River.

One Response to Benzene 101 and What Lies Beneath, By Will Rice

  1. john mc intyre says:

    what a sin, companys killing everything, all about the money

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