Pipeline safety regulators investigate Salt Lake oil spill


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SALT LAKE CITY -- The PHMSA, or Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, regulates gas pipelines across the United States as part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The organization has an inspector here in Utah reviewing Saturday's Chevron oil spill. If violations are found, the agency could assess fines.

According to PHMSA, a 2009 inspection found no violations in connection with the Chevron pipeline that burst Saturday. But KSL News searched government records and found other "significant incidents" involving spills by Chevron in Utah.

CLICK to enlarge U.S. map of crude oil pipelines. Courtesy Theodora.com
CLICK to enlarge U.S. map of crude oil pipelines. Courtesy Theodora.com

The Chevron pipeline running right next to Red Butte Creek is part of a network carrying oil, natural gas and other products which spaghetti through the United States.

In all, Utah has more than 21,000 miles of a variety of pipelines, many connecting with Wasatch Front refineries.

Over the past decade, Chevron reported six significant incidents -- those with more than $50,000 in damage -- in Utah. The total loss throughout the pipe system: more than 3,000 barrels and $3 million.

A Chevron official suggested the numbers are not high considering it has over 10,000 miles of pipeline in Utah.

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A spokesperson PHMSA says it's reviewing the incident and could assess penalties, saying there's "not one set fine or penalty. It all depends on what violations we find, if any."

At Monday's press conference, Chevron indicated the electrical arc believed to have caused the incident would not have been caught by its current safety systems.

"They did not work in this very unusual circumstance," said refinery manager Mark Sullivan.

A Utah industry group defends Chevron and the safety record of petroleum pipelines.

"When you look at the other incidents, and the gallons involved of pipeline incidents, versus other modes of transportation, they are the safest means of transportation for these important products," said Lee Peacock, president of the Utah Petroleum Association.

But one conservation group says the Red Butte Creek ecosystem has been "nuked." Another sees it as a "wake-up call" for the potential risks to Great Salt Lake Basin, home to one of the world's prime migratory bird habitats just downstream from the Chevron spill, right next to major refineries.

"If it proves that there is some real negligence here, we really hope that someone is held accountable for this," said Marc Heileson, Western regional representative for the Sierra Club.

A spokesperson for PHMSA says the agency has authority just over the pipeline operator. If someone else other than the pipeline operator is found to be at fault, the spokesman said some other entity other than PHMSA would be responsible to handle that.

E-mail: jdaley@ksl.com

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