Critics of energy company angry over undetected oil leak


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NINE MILE CANYON -- An oil leak in Utah that has triggered an expensive cleanup is minuscule compared to the one in the Gulf of Mexico, but critics say it raises similar issues. The leak apparently spilled toxic chemicals into the environment for more than a year before it was discovered.

Nine Mile Canyon is an environmental battleground, prized for its rich archaeology. In the middle of the canyon, under a natural gas compressor station, a very light oil, like gasoline, seeped into a groundwater aquifer without detection.

CLICK to enlarge. Courtesy Nine Mile Canyon Coalition
CLICK to enlarge. Courtesy Nine Mile Canyon Coalition

Two months ago, a truck driver noticed a slight sheen on Nine Mile Creek. The Bill Barrett Corporation quickly reported it to agencies, including Utah's Division of Water Quality.

"Well, I think initially it was bad. We have water quality standards for some of these chemicals, and some of the values were far exceeding that," says John Whitehead, with the Utah Division of Water Quality.

Within hours, the company put absorbent booms on the creek and began digging to find the leak. It took a week to find a tiny hole in a corroded pipe.

The company believes the hole leaked a few gallons a day for at least a year. They fixed it, but a large area of groundwater remains contaminated -- 4 acres, right next to the creek.

"It's a failure of the regulatory authorities, you know," says Price resident Ivan White.

"There's been no oversight as far as I'm concerned," says Carbonville resident Steve Tanner.

Tanner and White have battled the Bill Barrett Corporation for years. They wonder why anti-leak systems weren't in place beforehand.

"Any organization I've worked for -- the mining industry -- we had to have sensors put out so that you could detect leaks," Tanner says.

The company has drilled monitoring wells, dug trenches and constructed barriers to keep the contamination out of the creek. It's spent $1 million, so far, for a cleanup that may take years.

What is... Nine Mile Canyon?
Nine Mile Canyon, dubbed "the world's longest art gallery," is actually 40 miles long, not nine. It is located in a remote area of Carbon and Duchesne Counties and is known for its extensive rock art, more than 10,000 prehistoric rock carvings; most of it created by the Fremont and Ute tribes.

"From everything we've been able to determine, the company has been very responsive, poured a lot of resources into this," White head says. "We couldn't ask for a better response."

But critics say it reflects the same pattern that led to the vastly larger leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

"[It's] the lack of regulatory oversight, and then essentially allowing them to self-regulate themselves," White says.

"I or Ivan have never wanted to stop this project," Tanner says. "We just want them to do it responsibly."

"Well, I think that if you're going to have oil and gas development, you're going to have some peripheral damage. That's a given," Whitehead says. "The question is how responsive is the company? And did they take adequate precautions?"

The company says no damage to plants or animals has been detected.

"There are definitely risks associated with any human activity on the landscape," a spokesman told KSL News. "We feel like our response was timely, and we really didn't spare any expense."

State regulators haven't decided yet whether to fine the company.

The Bill Barrett Corporation is a Denver-based energy company. In recent years, the company has drilled numerous natural-gas wells just outside Nine Mile Canyon. The company moves the gas to a compressor station on company-owned property inside Nine Mile Canyon. At the compressor station, the gas is put into a pipeline for delivery to the company's customer, Questar.

A small amount of oil and water comes out of the wells along with the natural gas. At the compressor-station, the water and oil are separated from the gas. The light oil, which is similar to gasoline, is stored in tanks. The leak occurred in the piping system that moves the oil from the compressor system to the storage tanks.

After the Bill Barrett company stopped the leak in early April, sampling has showed declining levels of oil in Nine Mile Creek. The most recent sampling indicates the creek now complies with state water quality standards. The goal of the cleanup work so far has been to prevent water in a contaminated aquifer from flowing into the creek.

E-mail: jhollenhorst@ksl.com

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