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SALT LAKE CITY -- Eleven months after a Chevron Corp. pipeline leak sent thousands of gallons of oil flowing through a city creek into a popular urban lake, longtime users of Liberty Park were ready for the reopening party. But not all area residents are ready to celebrate.
Angry homeowners upstream say more contamination remains and cleanup needs to be done. They say Chevron's sponsorship of Liberty Lake's re-opening celebration Saturday -- touted as successful restoration -- rubbed salt in an old wound.
"The grand opening of the lake is a big sham," said Peter G. Hayes, a biology teacher whose property fronts Red Butte Creek two miles from the site where some 32,000 gallons of oil spilled from the pipeline. "It's a huge political ploy on Chevron's part to convince the public that everything is fine."
The grand opening of the lake is a big sham. It's a huge political ploy on Chevron's part to convince the public that everything is fine.
Art Raymond, a spokesman for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, said the city accepted Chevron's sponsorship offer because the company recognized the disruption it caused at Liberty Lake and "wanted to give back."
Federal regulators determined 10 hours passed in June 2010 before Chevron discovered a leak in a 10-inch pipeline that delivers crude oil 182 miles from Rangely, Colo., to Chevron's Salt Lake City refinery. The leak occurred in the mountains near the University of Utah and sent oil into a creek that flows through neighborhoods, into the popular Liberty Lake southeast of downtown and ultimately into the Jordan River, which flows into the Great Salt Lake.
About 300 birds were coated in oil and had to be cleaned at Utah's Hogle Zoo. Fewer than 10 died.
The city decided to try to stop the oil spill at Liberty Lake and use it as a collection point.
Chevron spent $2.5 million to drain the small lake and dredge 10,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment. The banks were lined with concrete and an extra protective rock layer, and aerators that circulate water were refurbished.
The re-opening of the park pond is a great next step and it's the absolute minimum we expect Chevron to do.
Chain-link fences that surrounded the lake for 11 months came down recently, though smaller barriers remain to protect replanted sod.
Just days before the official re-opening, the park already was buzzing with activity.
Arnold Moore has been a regular for 75 years since he first visited the park as a 3-year-old. The retired contractor said the spill was heartbreaking.
"No birds at all. It was barren, dead," he said. "Now it's back to life."
Svetlama Druzinina, who exercises each morning in the peaceful setting and often feeds the ducks, doesn't think all the birds have returned.
"The lake was poisoned," she said.
The sounds of geese honking drowned out some of Steve Lopez's words as he gazed at the shimmering water.
"I'm still upset about the spill," said Lopez, who began bringing his daughter to Liberty Lake when she was 2. She is 23 now.
He remains leery. "I won't come back until all the fencing is down and I'm sure it's clean," he said.
John Whitehead, assistant director of Utah's Division of Water Quality, said analysis of the water and remaining sediment shows the lake is safe -- even using conservative estimates.
He said state officials will continue to investigate complaints about residual oil in the stream above the pond and are conducting quarterly monitoring -- then sending the bills to Chevron.
"There is some concern among the public as to how clean is clean and that is a sticky issue," Whitehead said.
Rocks stained by oil can still be found in the creek bed along with oil-contaminated sediment, he acknowledged.
"From a cleanup point of view, you have to make a distinction about what will help the stream and what would hurt it," Whitehead said, noting some natural cleansing will occur in years to come.
"The stream has been hammered pretty heavily from all the cleanup efforts."
He said his office is continuing to check out "hot-spot" complaints.
Annie Payne, whose property is 150 feet from the contaminated creek, said she still smells oil on rainy days and is worried about the long-term health effects.
"The whole creek is contaminated," she said.
She recalled waking up the night of the spill, vomiting from the fumes and experiencing a terrible headache. She said her children were difficult to wake.
Both Payne and Hayes mentioned a pending court case but said they their lawyers advised them not to discuss details. Hayes wants Chevron to do an "inch-by-inch" probe of the entire creek and remove all contaminated rock and sediment.
Zach Frankel, director of the non-profit Utah Rivers Council, said about 20 families along Red Butte Creek have hired a law firm. They want compensation for decreased property values and medical bills, and assurances the habitat is clean.
"The re-opening of the park pond is a great next step and it's the absolute minimum we expect Chevron to do," Frankel said.
He said plenty of cleanup remains and Chevron should set up an escrow account to pay for potential future damages.
Raymond said the city was engaged in settlement talks with Chevron but he could not provide details. Becker could not be reached for comment.
Chevron responded to inquiries with an emailed statement.
"Chevron greatly appreciates the work of all that assisted during cleanup and response activities. Most importantly, we appreciate the patience and understanding shown by the residents of Salt Lake City during this time. We hope the residents will enjoy Liberty Park Lake for many years to come."
Story written by The Associated Press with contributions from Sarah Dallof.