More crews sent to Duchesne County oil spill

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DUCHESNE -- Additional manpower from out of state was sent to the banks of two Utah rivers Sunday to clean up a big crude oil spill that has contaminated the water.

Officials believe the paraffin-based black wax crude was dumped into the Strawberry River in Duchesne County sometime in the past few days. The oil escaped booms and spread to the Duchesne River.

"This is devastating, I think, to the entire community," said Kent Peatross, Duchesne County Commission chairman.

Authorities are quite certain an oil-field water truck driver deliberately dumped his tank into the river, not realizing how much crude oil was in the tank. The substance, which is produced in the oil fields of the Uintah Basin, is now affecting about three to four miles along both rivers.

We're looking at a probably felony-level crime here, because of the monetary value of the damage.

–Sheriff Travis Mitchell

Officials say more oil is in the rivers than originally thought. The original estimate was eight to 10 barrels, but updated estimates reach as much as 20 barrels.

Crews believe they have contained the contamination to the four-mile stretch. "They do have it contained downriver to where it's not moving any further," said incident commander Mike Lefler.

They spent the weekend in the water, sucking some of the substance out with hoses. They've even used their hands to pick up some of the more dense clumps.

Ivan Ayers, emergency response director for Enviro Care Inc., said, "Sometimes it's really not a liquid and really not a solid, so it's very difficult to clean up."

At room temperature, the oil takes a solid form. During the heat of the day, it becomes more like a liquid. Though crews are making progress, they still have a long way to go.

"It looks like we'll be there for awhile," Ayers said. "Several weeks, maybe several months."

This stretch of the Strawberry River is known as a blue-ribbon trout fishery. Duchesne County Sheriff Travis Mitchell says it appears a water tank truck parked next to the river at the county fairgrounds. The water tankers visit oil-well sites regularly and drain tanks of contaminated water that flows out of the oil wells.

"The evidence shows that they unloaded under pressure," he said.

Authorities have launched a criminal investigation into the spill. The sheriff says it's considered a serious crime because of the economic consequences. If the person responsible is caught, they could face felony charges.

"We're looking at a probably felony-level crime here, because of the monetary value of the damage," Mitchell said.

County officials say oil company officials are also outraged and offered to help with the cleanup. "They're very concerned. This is definitely against all of their rules and practices," said Peatross.

Many water-truck drivers are independent contractors. They're supposed to deliver their contaminated water to an approved disposal site. The driver may not have realized how much crude oil was in his water.

"Sometimes people get in a hurry. They don't want to do the full route. It's easier to make a shortcut," said Mitchell. "That's what we're speculating right now."

A person walking along a path that borders the Strawberry River south of the county fairgrounds spotted the oil in the river around 1:30 p.m. Friday.

An additional 16 workers joined the cleanup effort Sunday, and more equipment was brought in. Crews are trying to work out access agreements with landowners along the two rivers.




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John Hollenhorst


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