Officials concerned another oil spill could contaminate drinking water

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A second spill of hundreds of barrels of oil near Salt Lake's Red Butte Creek has officials considering nightmare scenarios.

It's serving as a wake-up call about potential contamination to the water supply of hundreds of thousands of Utahns.

The man who oversees Salt Lake City's water supply is calling for a new look at the risk to culinary water of future oil spills. Late Wednesday night, as much as 500 barrels of oil leaked from a Chevron pipeline valve about 500 feet from the scene of a larger spill in June.

Though neither spill tainted the water supply, Jeff Niermeyer worries a similar spill in another spot could.

You could ultimately end up impacting the water supply of over a million people.

–Jeff Niermeyer

Here's the nightmare scenario water managers fear: a pipeline spills oil near one of the reservoirs or rivers which supply water to much of the population of the Wasatch Front.

That possibility keeps Niermeyer, the director of Salt Lake's Public Utilities, up at night.

"You could ultimately end up impacting the water supply of over a million people," he said. "It really depends on where it happens, where the crossings are. You know this pipeline crosses the Provo River in three or four places."

Are we ready? Niermeyer says no.

Crews work to clean up oil Thursday that leaked from a Chevron pipeline near Red Butte Creek.
Crews work to clean up oil Thursday that leaked from a Chevron pipeline near Red Butte Creek.

Pipelines delivering oil to Wasatch Front refineries cross near numerous critical water sources, including reservoirs and rivers, not to mention numerous earthquake faults. Last week, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker said Chevron needs enhanced federal oversight and noted the oil giant can't be trusted to stop future spills.

"We don't have the expertise in house to provide the assurance that this pipeline is going to be safe," he said.

Chevron officials say they're listening.

"I personally am quite concerned and Chevron is quite concerned about having two leaks in close proximity to one another," said Mark Sullivan, manager of the Salt Lake City Chevron refinery, on Thursday.

Nierrmeyer is asking Chevron to help develop a robust new plan which addresses risks and vulnerabilities, with water and emergency planners. The hope is the plan will enhance training, mitigation planning and perhaps include new pipeline shut-off valves at key spots.

He says a few parts per million of oil can taint a water supply, and public perception it's clean.

"If your water tastes like oil, you've lost that supply," Niermeyer said.

Monday, Mayor Becker will be in Washington, taking his concerns to top aides of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, whose agency oversees pipeline safety.


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