Oil-like substance discovered in Duchesne County rivers


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(Photo/Geoff Liesik)

DUCHESNE — An unknown amount of an unidentified petroleum product has gotten past booms set up on the Strawberry River and entered the Duchesne River, authorities said Saturday.

The paraffin-based black wax crude, which is produced in the oil fields of the Uintah Basin, is now affecting about three to four miles along both rivers. It has not been detected at booms set up near Bridgeland, about 10 miles away from the spot were it is believed it was dumped in the river Friday, said Mike Lefler, director of Duchesne County Fire and Emergency Management.

"We're deploying more booms now to try to prevent the spread and collect the product," Lefler said.

Enviro Care Inc. employee Leon Wheeler holds up a clump of the unknown petroleum product that crews are cleaning out of the Strawberry and Duchesne rivers in Duchesne County. (Courtesy: Geoff Liesik, Uintah Basin Standard)
Enviro Care Inc. employee Leon Wheeler holds up a clump of the unknown petroleum product that crews are cleaning out of the Strawberry and Duchesne rivers in Duchesne County. (Courtesy: Geoff Liesik, Uintah Basin Standard)

There remains no threat to culinary water, he added.

Scott Hacking, a district engineer with the state Department of Environmental Quality, said an estimated 15 to 20 barrels of crude oil was dumped into the river. He said one scenario being considered is that an oil-field water truck driver mixed river water with the contents of the truck's tank — mistakenly believing it wasn't that dirty — and then discharged the load into the river.

"That's illegal, too," Hacking said. "The other scenario is that it was intentional."

Someone walking along a path that borders the Strawberry River just south of the Duchesne County Fairgrounds spotted the oil in the river about 1:30 p.m. Friday and contacted authorities. Lefler said the person also contacted a relative, who is a Chevron employee.

Chevron, although not linked to the apparent dumping incident, played an integral role in early efforts to keep the oil from spreading.

"They were a big help and a big asset to us," Lefler said, noting that the company provided more than 600 feet of booms and buoys Friday to help first responders from the Duchesne and Myton fire departments and Ute Indian Tribe with containment.

Crews from Enviro Care Inc. arrived in Duchesne late Friday night and began work to clean up the rivers and track the spread of the oil Saturday. Black trash bags full of football-size clumps of foul-smelling petroleum could be seen on both banks of the Strawberry River near the fairgrounds.

There was also still some of the oil — turning from a waxy solid to a viscous liquid in the warm afternoon sun — clinging to the vegetation at the river's edge. Fish could be seen jumping in the water, and a muskrat was spotted swimming below the surface into the underwater entrance of its lodge.

The state Department of Environmental Quality took samples at the site Friday to test water quality and determine exactly what the substance is. Hacking said determining exactly which well the oil came from could prove costly and difficult.

"We may not be able to isolate it to a particular company or a particular well," Hacking said.

The Duchesne County Sheriff's Office has launched a criminal investigation into the incident. Hacking noted that in addition to the potential for criminal charges, there are "pretty heavy fines associated with incidents like this."

E-mail: geoff@ubstandard.com

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