Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Sand Creek Petroleum Spill: Boots On The Ground

On Monday I couldn't stand not knowing if we are getting the sunshine pump on the Sand Creek spill any longer.  I took a half day to put my boots on the ground and take a look for myself.  It was freezing cold (17F) but I spent a good amount of time giving the area the once-over and I am very glad I went.

No matter how hard you look you cannot count parts per billion benzene on your fingers.  Nevertheless I have to admit that from what I can see, smell and feel there does appear to be major progress in containing the spill.  I wouldn't go drinking the water until tests indicate otherwise but I could find nothing to dispute the assertion that the contamination is contained.

Here is what I found:
Looking down the deadly barrel of Sand-Creek from the DSP you can see a giant vacuum crane in the distance.  That is at the spill site.  The fog coming off the water made for a surreal atmosphere.
Looking right up the deadly barrel of Sand Creek, the crane vacuum in the background is at the spill site.
This bird of prey showed up and gave me the evil eye while I was giving the river my own evil eye.  I also spotted a large Eagle less than a half mile away.  This is not really pertinent beyond highlighting the unusual amount of nature hidden in the industrial armpit of Denver.
He digs fish, I dig fish, so I hope we are cool.
Hundreds of critter tracks ran through the snow down to the river.  I would like to call that a good sign, but I suspect they have to drink daily regardless of the water quality. 

The birds carpers love to hate were swimming in significant numbers below the 270 bridge. I refuse to credit these carp-spooking terrors with too much intelligence but Ducks can easily move on if they do not like the conditions.  I take that as a good sign.
Yup, I was actually happy to see ducks for once. 
Unfortunately all was not well on the critter front though.  While closely inspecting the water in the DSP for sheen I saw at least 20 dead bugs of about 4 or 5 varieties float by in under 5 minutes.  Some had wings while others looked to be stillbirths.  I guess I may have witnessed some kind of crazy natural hatch, but since it was 15deg out I find that unlikely.  I hope it was, because otherwise I worry that the carp will survive the contamination only to starve through the winter.

Dont mind the foam, that is from the warmwater treatment plant.

I brought this one home in a water bottle for a better picture.   It almost worked.

At the spill site itself the activity was fast, furious and completely indecipherable from a safe distance.  They do have some serious equipment in play, you can see a sense of urgency and the now famous "trench" would appear to be a little more complicated than a simple hole in the sand.

At the confluence the work at the source appears to be paying off.  Sand Creek still sports five booms but the full time guy vacuuming up gunk behind them has been replaced with somebody keeping an eye out for escapements.  I could see one small (less area than a bathtub?) clump of contamination trapped behind one of the booms but that was it.  I hope that they periodically hook the vacuum back up to get the remnants, but from what I have heard about the early mitigation this appears to be a huge improvement.
Residual Crud
I spent much of my time getting my nose and eyes up close to the water down in the South Platte.  There are no petroleum odors emanating from the water.  I could not see the main current because of the waste-water treatment suds and fog coming from the water, but saw absolutely no evidence of sheen.    
No sheen or smell from the margins
I took home some of the water in a water bottle.  I wanted to see if anything separated out over time and if any smell accumulated.  I opened it today and there is no visual or olfactory indication of contamination.  It smells like normal slightly urbanized DSP water.  In other words it does not smell like flowers and butterflies but at least it doesn't smell like a gas station.
So seperation or odor 2 days later.  Very encourang.
All good news so far, expect for the possible bug kill.  Unfortunately I was not done.  After so carefully inspecting the surface of the water I decided to dig a little deeper and reached in and pulled up some vegetation trapped against a rock.  There was a definite petroleum odor in this muck.  Once again I captured a sample in a water bottle.  Several days later I see no sign of anything separating out, but there is no doubt that it smells strongly like gasoline.  It would seem that at least on the margins the muck, gunk and vegetation has trapped some of the contamination.  Although the spill may be contained this is a strong indication that there are significant residual condemnations in the river itself.

Two days later and this vegetation smells like a gas-station

Overall I am encouraged.  The evidence I found of residual issues is disturbing but not surprising.  The fact that I can find no indications of significant contamination flowing into the Platte makes me feel much better and at least in my opinion it would appear that as of Monday we are not getting the sunshine pump about containment.


  1. Great pics. Really gave me a feeling for what that part of the river looks like. Love the bird on the rusty fish!

  2. McTage,

    The kestral looked cold. The midges should have lived I would think, there is about a 3" layer of warm air above the water, at least I've fished them dry here that chilly, so MAYBE that poisened vegetation is to blame, and if so perhaps time and high water later will remove the contanminants, or dilute them greatly. Is Sand Creek itself any sort of marginal or significant fishery, as in do carp and other species possible use it to spawn in out of the Sth. Platte?
    Good pictures and information.

  3. Appreciate these follow-up posts, McTage. Glad to hear things are improving, but the contamination settling into the muck and vegetation is worrisome. Gonna be awhile before anyone knows what the true impact of the spill/leak will be.

    "deadly barrel of Sand Creek". Well said.

  4. Jim - The Kestral (thanks for the ID Gregg, I dont remember ever seeing one of these and it was really cool looking) was the highlight of my day. Amazing colors as it was flying in.

    Gregg - As far as Sand Creek fishing goes I would tell you but then I would have to kill you. As I know it is 99% worthless for fishing and the 1% is not my secret to tell.

    Ty - Glad you caught that. I ALMOST felt like I was in EMB's league when that phrase popped into my head. Then I wrote the next line and reality came crashing in.


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