Longform

After ignoring the South Platte River for decades, Denver is once again panning for gold

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The state is currently considering options for what to do with the nearby I-70 overpass. The National Western Stock Show wants to expand — or leave town altogether. The city should be coordinating plans for all of these areas, he says, but instead it's focusing on other places. "They just spent another $6 million on Confluence Park, and that's great," Zeppelin notes. "But there's an area here where they could get a lot more done for a lot less."

There has always been a lot of heavy lifting in RiNo. But it looks like more will be needed to reshape the neighborhood into all that it could be. — Jonathan Shikes

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

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Metro Wastewater Reclamation

East 64th Avenue and York Street

On the western edge of Commerce City, where a Metro Wastewater plant discharges treated effluent into the South Platte River, the bloated carcass of one sorry critter bobs in the foamy backwash like a junebug in a creamy, cinnamon-flecked latte. It could be a raccoon or an opossum or possibly a mutant life form, but finding out would mean poking at it, and it appears to have already endured quite enough.

Just how much abuse the South Platte itself can take is an open question. North of downtown, the river winds through an increasingly grimy and aromatic wasteland. It's a sacrifice area, the legacy of a bargain struck long ago, a place where the rudiments of nature are subjugated to the demands of industry. For the beehives of commerce along its banks, the river isn't a resource but a long-suffering appendage — and a handy dumping ground.

Looming over this stretch of the Platte is the Cherokee coal-fired power plant. Built between 1955 and 1968, the plant burns up to 5,600 tons of coal a day, creating steam with water drawn from the Platte and a Denver Water recycling plant, and generating enough electricity to power more than half a million homes. But Cherokee is one of the more benign neighbors. According to a recent report by Environment Colorado, the South Platte is the most polluted waterway in the state, absorbing almost 250,000 pounds of toxic chemicals a year.

One longtime contributor to that devil's brew is the Suncor Energy oil refinery, a sprawling complex of tanks and machinery and railway sidings that hems in Brighton Boulevard on both sides. Contamination of groundwater at the site, which processes 90,000 barrels of crude oil a day, dates back decades. Suncor has been involved in cleanup efforts since it purchased the operation from Conoco in 2004, but the results have been something less than spectacular.

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.

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.

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