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Four years ago, state health officials approved what was supposed to be a final phase of cleanup. But last fall, a carp fisherman reported a plume of gunk in Sand Creek behind the refinery, not far from where the creek empties into the Platte. An EPA investigation discovered that the plume was a blend of benzene, toluene, xylene and various hydrocarbons associated with petroleum products.

Suncor has dug trenches, built walls and blasted the carcinogenic muck into the air. After six months of remediation measures, the level of benzene in samples taken from the Platte is higher than it was when the project started — between fifty and eighty times the allowable level for drinking water. But then, this stretch of the Platte doesn't have to meet drinking water standards. Despite the fact that Thornton, Westminster and Aurora all draw water (and treat it) from wells downriver, state health officials figure the river and the creatures in it and on it can handle benzene in doses well above what Suncor is dishing out. The company isn't facing any fines for its plume.

Last month, Suncor did agree to shell out up to $2.2 million in fines and do-gooder donations for past air-quality transgressions — while not conceding any violation of law. At the confluence of Sand Creek and the Platte, just before the river slips under I-270, the meaty odor of the dog-food plant down the road gives way to an acrid tang of sulfur, a stench somewhere between rotten eggs and freshly ignited gunpowder.

The tunnel in Lakewood Gulch where Elsha Guel tried to take shelter in 2007. Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail
photo Courtesy of RTD, Denver
The tunnel in Lakewood Gulch where Elsha Guel tried to take shelter in 2007. Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail
The tunnel in Lakewood Gulch in 2011, after improvements were made. Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail
photo Courtesy of RTD, Denver
The tunnel in Lakewood Gulch in 2011, after improvements were made. Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail

It's all part of the deal, the bargain that underlies a fossil-fuel-dependent world. Cyclists and power walkers cruise along the sunny greenway, paying no mind to the tainted air or what might be lurking in the water. Two women pedal by, discussing men who won't commit. Ducks and geese paddle their way above and below the confluence, indifferent to the plume below. They don't care which side of the river they're on.

The humans aren't too particular, either.  Alan Prendergast

Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail

******

Elaine T. Valente Open Space

104th Avenue

On a quiet, cloud-covered afternoon just around supper time, Tim Baker stands on the northern shoreline of the east pond at Elaine T. Valente Open Space with a fishing pole in his hand. Clad in salmon-colored shorts, a blue T-shirt and with a tattered, green mesh trucker's hat with a Mountain Dew emblem stitched on the front, the forty-year-old Colorado native looks intent behind his camouflage sunglasses. A slight gust howls and pushes ribbons of waves against one another, and he reels in his line.

Aside from a few cyclists and another man and his young son, who are set up with rods and reels of their own downshore a couple hundred yards, Baker has the place to himself, which is fine by him. He's not here for the company; he's here for the fishing, and he's been fishing here for years, long before this 125-acre parcel of former farmland was acquired by Adams County in August 2002. "Before this was a park, I used to sneak in here and go fishing," says Baker, who was raised in Englewood. These days, he comes up after work to unwind and get back to his center.

It's not hard to see why he chose this place. On a clear day the park boasts some spectacular sightlines. To the southwest, you can catch the outline of the Denver skyline traced ever so faintly against a sprawling mountain-vista backdrop. Nestled on a stretch of road on East 104th Avenue between McKay and Brighton Roads, Elaine T. Valente Open Space comprises three fishable ponds that are linked together by an assortment of arterial bike and hiking trails that wind around the park and snake their way along the South Platte River. Motorists making their way down East 104th are most likely unaware of the wildlife and recreational activity taking place here. From the road, it looks like nothing more than a quaint roadside lake with a picnic shelter. Last Friday, a host of local politicians, led by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Governor Hickenlooper, announced that they had formed a partnership that will create uninterrupted trails and links that will connect Rocky Mountain National Park, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge and the numerous trail systems in between; Baker's fishing hole will be part of that plan.

But those efforts — called the Rocky Mountain Greenway Project — are politicians' dreams. Today is Baker's reality.

On most days, the parking lot is dotted with cars, most of their occupants jogging, walking or pedaling down one of the bike paths. Today it's rather sparse. That's okay. More fish for Baker — even if he mainly catches and releases them (he's wary of the magnesium chloride they use on the roads somehow working its way into the water system). And Baker hasn't done too badly for himself. One time he pulled out a fourteen- or fifteen-inch bass, and two years ago, he saw a guy on the other side of the shore pull one that was two and a half pounds.

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8 comments
KevinInCentennial
KevinInCentennial

Lots of people also have fun gold panning in the river. I would love to see that mentioned along with the running, fishing, boating,etc. sometimes at Grant Frontier Park on the weekends there are more than 10 gold prospectors and most days at least one or two.

sifted1
sifted1

I love the path...I do not like the degrading comment about the homeless. This whole city is becoming a yuppie tourist trap. I hope all those "plans' for the Globeville part of the path do not go through. It is a nice area but real. Homeless people share the area with the yups all done up in thier cute little spandex bike suits and helmets. Yet the park itself is quiet and peaceful. If the plans for the area go through it will become a tourist trap like Confluence Park all clogged with people and very little wildlife. Did the evil fat cats REALLY ban homeless camping in the whole city? It is obvious they were never homeless. I laugh and laugh at the yups who pay a million dollars to live a block away from the rescue mission. I guess the REAL reason they are here is to drive the poor away to the degrading suburbs so they can have a REEL urban experience. I felt the article was really just thinly disguised boosterism.

MARGYVER
MARGYVER

I grew up in Swansea near globeville and the Platte....it used to be so horrible back in the day. Im always glad to see all the improvements. If I ever hit the lottery......im gonna give back to my old neighborhood to make sure that future generations never see it as crappy as I did!!!

Skotl
Skotl

Trying to make some improvements upstream as well - South Suburban Parks and Recreation partnering with Littleton, Urban Drainage, Trout Unlimited to enhance the river through South Platte Park in Littleton. The plan should help concentrate extremely low flows to create better fish survival and more varied aquatic habitat. Phase 1 to be constructed hopefully this fall, still seeking funding for the full plan, but the entire plan can be viewed (large file) on Littleton's website here: http://www.littletongov.org/pa...

calhounp
calhounp

I'd like to publish some of these comments in our print edition, ideally with your full name/town. If that's okay, e-mail me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

Miles
Miles

Great article! I've been documenting unsanctioned use of the Lakewood gulch area for several years for a street-art project WeDUPT (West Denver Urban Preserve and Trail) http://www.sociometry.com/wpsb... It's interesting to see the greenway renewals effect on the homeless (and day-drinker) population. There are already new unsanctioned paths being trampled to and from clandestine camping spots in area – taking advantage of the new light-rail tracks segmenting off one side of the creek into barely accessible enclaves. It has however shifted a lot of homeless people away. Not so much up by the Taxi building, on a recent bike ride up there I saw easily 40 to 50 homeless people and several quasi-permanent camp spots. The recent ban on urban camping initiative will undoubtedly bring more people into the corridor hiding out from sweeps on the 16th St. Mall and Civic Center Park areas.

Whatajoke
Whatajoke

The improvements are great, but allowing Suncor to get away with decades of environmental degradation is shameful.

guest
guest

I commute by bike from Thornton to Denver on the Platte River Trail, and this trail is an urban treasure. While biking it I have seen abundant wildlife including Bald Eagles, Beavers, Owls, Coyotes, Deer, Snakes, White Pelicans, and countless other bird species. Major kudos to the Shoemakers for their dedication to this great river and its inhibitants.

 
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