Since the 2002 discovery of a black oily tar over a
one-eighth-mile stretch of the Cache la Poudre River, officials
have been working to clean up the contamination but have yet to
name anyone responsible or determine with certainty where the
sludge is coming from.
“This is a priority for us. I know it is not good for the
environment,” said Jennifer Lane, community involvement coordinator
for the United States Environmental Protection Agency, region
Back in spring 2002, Fort Collins city officials noticed that a
black oily sheen had formed on the surface of the Poudre River that
runs from College Avenue to Linden Street in the north sector of
the city. The city was working with a Brownfields Grant to
redevelop the landfill site when it stumbled upon the mess.
Recently, the bulk of the cleanup process began by diverting the
river, testing the bedrock and soil via numerous drilling spots,
and other types of analyses.
Margit Hentschel, environmental manager for the city Department
of Natural Resources, said the process of clearing the river of the
contamination takes a lot of time and collaboration, and
significant work is done during the springtime before winter
“This past January we did an in-depth investigation on a small
part of the river,” Lane said.
Near the river is the city landfill, as is an old coal
gasification plant. Both locations are possible causes for the
river’s contamination, but EPA officials have yet to conclude who
The gas plant was under the name Poudre Valley Gas Plant from
1904 until it closed in 1926. The Public Service Company of
Colorado, also doing business as Xcel Energy, now owns a portion of
the gas plant and has agreed to pay for the $1.5 million phase one
of the cleanup, but it has not admitted liability since EPA tests
have yet to conclude the tar’s source.
Steve Roalstad, spokesman for Xcel Energy, said digging,
trenching and boring were done and paid for by Xcel and its
contractors between January and February of this year.
“At this point we are analyzing all the data associated with the
discovery and will continue to do so until the end of April,”
“What we really want to do is find a source for this
contamination,” Roalstad said.
Unless the black material in the Poudre was intentionally put
there, no one is at fault, EPA officials said, but someone must be
held liable. According to EPA officials, if the tar is linked to
the old gas plant, then its successor, Xcel, could be held liable.
If officials find the link to the landfill and someone dumped the
substance there, the city and Xcel may both be held liable, EPA
“I think it is a small possibility the material was disposed in
the facility of the landfill,” Lane said.
The contamination site looked much like an oil slick in
September and at times smelled like a closet full of mothballs. EPA
officials said this makes sense because of the numerous types of
chemicals found in the tar, including naphthalene, which is also
used in the production of mothballs.
The city posted signs banning human contact with the water and
fishing near the site. A fence was also put in place.
The actual make-up of the oily substance is not completely
known, but according to EPA on-site coordinator Paul Peronard,
testing of the material shows the material most likely is coal tar
to a 98 percent certainty.
“We are near sure this stuff is coal tar,” Peronard said.
Lane said some of the chemicals detected in the tar are
hazardous to human and animal health. The chemicals are linked to
cancer and problems in the reproductive system, she said.
Peronard said the city is responsible for the cleanup. He said
the city is cooperating with site officials and understands it may
be partly liable if the source of the black material is found to
have come from the nearby landfill.
“(The city) kicked this off. They have been helping in the
investigation’s design and oversight,” Peronard said.
Drinking water has been confirmed as not having been affected by
the contamination, Peronard said. He said waterfowl and small
“critter” organisms at the bottom of the food chain have been most
hurt by the contamination.
Peronard said he has witnessed waterfowl landing in the sheen,
only to fly off with a “rainbow” of oil on their feathers and
“Once we finalize this work in June we will come back this
summer and do a permanent fix,” Peronard said.