Mar 312004
Authors: James Baetke

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

is liable.

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,”

Roalstad said.

“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

officials said.

“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.

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