Uncontrolled release


This scintillating-looking snippet of paperwork was pulled from the PR portion of a materials containment plan filed with the state of Colorado by Suncor Energy’s oil refinery in Commerce City, which produces about 90,000 barrels a day of gasoline, diesel and asphalt. It was supplied to High Country News by Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians, who obtained it from the state. If I were to fill it out based on early reports of an ongoing incident at Sand Creek, a tributary of the South Platte River, which is a primary water source for northeastern Colorado, it might read something like this:

At 10:16 a.m. on Nov. 27 2011, an oily sheen -- possibly resulting from a spill -- was reported on Sand Creek downstream of Suncor’s Commerce City refinery north of Denver. The substance’s nature has yet to be determined, but it was accompanied by a “chocolaty sludge” and a strong petroleum odor.

Except that info didn’t come from the company. Or even from the press. In fact, it came first from “Fly-Carpin,” the blog of 37-year-old fly-fishing enthusiast and aerospace engineer Trevor Tanner, who discovered the pollution while out, er, carpin’ (in essence, fly fishing for carp: Behold, the revolution!) in Sand Creek.

Which is why the incident makes said PR document pretty amusing to a reporter. Everything in the plan suggests (unsurprisingly) that the company wants to keep tight control over the release of information that could make it look bad. (Doesn’t everyone?) In it are pages of step-by-step responses for Suncor employees of various authorization levels detailing what information to release, how to release it, and how not to release anything other than that information. It's not that it's particularly nefarious (though I'm sure you could argue it's not in the public interest, especially when problems are intentionally hidden), but that it's just so careful, so precise, as to seem comical -- and perhaps ultimately futile in this age where information has a life of its own. There is, for example, a brief section with instructions for “Providing Limited Information”:

Or, if you happen to be authorized to give more than limited information, and you’re fielding phone calls from reporters, you’re told to ("if reporter interrupts, say: 'Please hold your questions. My statement should answer your questions. The more you interrupt, the less time I'll have for your questions.' "):

In case there were any doubts about how to close, the document takes care of that too (hang up!):

For in person interviews, things get even more precious (10 seconds of eye contact each? Really? I'm blushing!):

And for press conferences, lest, I suppose, the company representative be mobbed by rabid reporters hungry for the perfect sound bite, the document offers this suggestion (see parenthetical on the second to last line):

But since the company apparently wasn’t keeping tight enough control of the pollution that ended up contaminating Sand Creek (in fact, it may have been connected to worsening groundwater pollution that both Suncor and the state were aware of) – information reached the public via an unmitigated spill of its own.

After discovering the aforementioned sheen and chocolaty sludge, Tanner called Information and finally ended up with the hotline for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. His report was referred to local authorities at the Tri-County Health Department.

The official who checked the river a few hours later reportedly called Tanner back several times from different locations, asking for more specific information, but was unable to locate the sheen or sludge he had described. Disappointed and confused – but hopeful that maybe the findings meant the spill had stopped – Tanner wrote up the experience on Fly-Carpin: “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 ... 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.  Carp are tough so lets hope they and the several other nice carp pods down-stream are OK.”

“Someone is a bastard,” a reader named Gregg from Boise, Idaho, commented on the post soon after. “A letter to the editor might start something. Might.” Indeed, Gregg called the Denver Post. In turn Denver Post reporter Bruce Finley (check out his excellent coverage of the issue, which I have relied heavily upon for this blog) called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which dispatched Curtis Kimbel to the scene. Kimbel walked from Sand Creek’s confluence with the South Platte to “where the black goo was thickest” as Finley describes it. Then, he launched an EPA response. The whole sequence of events took place over just two days.

It was only after all of this that Suncor officials reported a spill, Finley writes.

And even after extensive cleanup efforts were initiated, toxic chemicals – including benzene, a potent carcinogen linked to leukemia -- were still present in the waterway at high concentrations as of Jan 21. When the leak was first detected, benzene levels in the spill area were tens of thousands of times greater than the federal limit for drinking water set to protect public health; by late January they were about 50 times the federal limit – leading to vows from state officials to get more aggressive:

Preventing further pollution of Sand Creek has become a top-tier priority, (Colorado health department environmental-programs director Martha) Rudolph said. "We need to accelerate our responding to that particular issue — to get it out of Sand Creek, to stop that."

Meanwhile, hundreds of Suncor employees underwent blood tests after the company discovered benzene had even made it into the refinery’s drinking water.

Suncor is, of course, not the only corporation that as a matter of policy attempts to influence and shape the flow of information about itself. The federal government does it frequently these days, as we’ve reported. But to mangle one of my favorite phrases (which I've already over-used in my HCN blogs) from Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm: like life, information finds a way. And to facilitate its free flow, the Denver chapter of Trout Unlimited recently released a simple report form of its own on Tanner's suggestion: a wallet card with the hotline of the National Spill Response Center.

Sarah Gilman is associate editor at High Country News.

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