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Massive cleanup effort underway after oil leak in Red Butte Canyon

   |  Posted Jun 12th, 2010 @ 10:21pm


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SALT LAKE CITY -- A massive effort is underway to clean up the damage left behind when a Chevron pipeline leaked up to 21,000 gallons of oil into Salt Lake City waterways Saturday.

Crews capped the site of a leak, which was spilling oil into Red Butte Creek. As of 4 p.m. Friday, officials said they had the flow slowed to just two to three gallons per minute.

Chevron officials have confirmed the pipeline was shut off around 7:45 a.m., but warn residual oil was still leaking at the fracture point.

Though the site of the leak has been contained, officials estimate up to 500 barrels of oil have already been released.

The Salt Lake Valley Health Department says the oil has reached the Jordan River down to 1300 South and appears to be continuing into the Great Salt Lake.

Liberty Park was closed to the public and will likely remain closed for weeks as crews work to clean up the mess.

Leak detected

Before officials knew anything was happening, Red Butte Creek was running grotesque shades of black and brown. People walking their dogs noticed a stench permeating the city's east side.

"My dog ran ahead of me and went down into the water unfortunately," said Salt Lake City resident Adrian Pulfer. "It became obvious the whole creek was awash with petroleum."

Scott Freitag, a spokesman with the Salt Lake City Fire Department, says employees at the Veterans Affairs Hospital spotted oil in the creek around 6:45 a.m. and called 911.

Fire crews responded quickly. "We put some absorbent booms into the creek there to catch what we could catch," said Freitag.

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Still, an estimated 50 to 60 gallons of crude oil leaked into Red Butte Creek per minute. Crews traced the oil upstream to a 10-inch wide Chevron crude oil pipeline, which was leaking underground near Red Butte Garden by the University of Utah.

Heavy crude oil bubbled out of the ground into the creek. In a stroke of luck, a crew from Big D Construction was working nearby, unrelated to the leak.

"Right away they stopped what they were doing on their job, brought over heavy equipment and began building the dams, dikes and ponds to help us contain this," Freitag said.

At a press conference Saturday afternoon, officials reported the leak actually began around 10:00 Friday night. Chevron reported receiving high- and low-pressure alarms Friday evening.

Chevron officials still aren't sure how the leak started.

The company's refinery manager, Mark Sullivan, admitted he didn't know about the leak until the fire department called him. He gives a lot of credit to the construction team for helping contain the leak.

"Their immediate response is critical to minimizing the impact of this leak," he said.

Sullivan said Chevron took quick action as soon as news of the leak broke. "It was shut off immediately after I was made aware of it," he said.

Sullivan says the company takes full responsibility for the leak. "That means we'll take responsibility for any financial damage, for any environmental damage, for any safety concerns or impacts on people's health," he said.


We are working tirelessly with Chevron teams to contain this spill from the critical ecological areas affected in our city.

–Mayor Ralph Becker


Firefighters aren't sure if a nearby power failure Friday night was related to the leak.

The crude oil belongs to Chevron and comes from their Colorado 10-inch pipeline, which runs down Emigration Canyon and heads west over Beck Street in Salt Lake City to the company refinery.

Cleanup begins

Chevron spokesman Dan Johnson said crews were able to cap the leak and are now working on cleaning up the crude oil that spilled into the water.

Johnson also said the company will do everything in its power to figure out what happened.

"We're going to dig up and excavate that pipe. Some of us wanted to look at that tonight," Johnson said. "It's a safety issue. There are a lot of other pipes associated in that area -- water, power and natural gas -- and we were concerned if we started digging in a very confined area we could create more problems rather than solve problems."

The oil spilling into Red Butte Creek.

Chevron crews, firefighters, hazardous materials teams, and environmental crews are using sandbags and other sponge-type equipment in an attempt to contain the oil. Groupings of 6- to 8-inch absorbent booms have also been deployed along the Jordan River to minimize downstream impact.

A Chevron vacuum truck is pumping from the effected ponds, transporting the crude oil to the local Chevron refinery at 2351 N. 1100 West in Salt Lake City.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker says drinking water for residents has not been affected.

"We are working tirelessly with Chevron teams to contain this spill from the critical ecological areas affected in our city," said Becker. "Our fire teams have capped the site and will work to determine the damage and best course of action."

Mayor Becker is asking for residents to stay away from Red Butte Canyon and Liberty Park so crews can adequately manage the spill, and says all water access points along Red Butte Creek, Liberty Park and the Jordan River should be avoided by humans and animals at this time.

The crude oil made its way all the way to Liberty Park, which was shut down for the first time in memory.

Officials estimate the cleanup will take weeks, and Becker says that means keeping Liberty Park closed to the public.

"This could take weeks to finish the clean up down here," Becker said. "I'm sorry to do that to the people in terms of recreational use but we want to make sure we have it clean and safe."

City officials say they are not in need of resident volunteers at this point.

Health concerns

Symptoms to watch out for
Residents are advised to call 911 only if they experience:
  • difficulty breathing
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • severe headaches

Wind from a storm front dissipated fumes during the morning and active hours of the leak. However, officials say residual fumes may be collecting.

Fire and hazmat crews have not detected any high toxicity levels in the air around the creek, but they will continue to monitor the area through the weekend. At this point, there are no concerns about fire or explosions.

Officials advise residents to only call 911 if they experience difficulty breathing, nausea, dizziness and severe headaches.

Residents near the creek who are smelling petroleum odors should do everything they can to keep their homes ventilated.

Again, city officials have issued a strong warning to residents to stay away from the affected areas and to keep their pets away from the water.

The state Division of Water Quality was on site assessing damage and will issue a violation notice against Chevron, Gov. Gary Herbert said in a release. The governor said he was monitoring the spill, which he called "devastating."

As for any property damage or hotel reimbursements, Chevron has a number you can call to file claims. That number is 866-752-6340.

In addition, the public may submit comments and concerns regarding the spill by calling the Salt Lake City Joint Information Center at 801-535-7171, sending an e-mail to oil@slcgov.com or filling out an online form HERE.

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Story compiled with contributions from John Hollenhorst, Alex CabreroAnne Forester and Becky Bruce.

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