KANE COUNTY — Hikers found a decades-old oil spill in a side canyon that flows into the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, officials said.
Investigators from the Bureau of Land Management said Thursday that the spill appears to have occurred in the early 1970s. Evidence of the spill can be seen for three to four miles in a seldom-visited canyon known as Little Valley Wash, according to BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall.
The oil spill was brought to the attention of the BLM after hikers provided pictures of the damage Tuesday. Initially they thought it might have been from an unreported spill from a nearby oil field, but investigators hiked the canyon and wash to a wellhead and determined the oil is much older and was likely uncovered by recent storms.
“The belief is that by today’s standards it is still a large spill,” Crandall said. “We’re not by any stretch of the imagination saying it's just a drop in the bucket. But as you can imagine, back in the ’70s what practiced for best management practices bore absolutely no resemblance to what we consider responsible development today.”
Investigators think the oil spill was uncovered in September, when southern Utah experienced numerous violent storms and flash floods. The storms could have pushed a high volume of water through the fairly narrow, very steep drainage and eroded some of the areas and undercut where the older oil was, reinvigorating it and moving it further down the wash, Crandall said.
“That particular wash does see flashing frequently and so it does get erosion and soil movement and things like that," she said. "Eventually that spill is going to get buried under a decade’s worth of debris until something like perhaps the storms from September come along and stir that up and reveal it again.”
Crandall said the area where the oil slick is located is near the border of the Dixie National Forest and is a spot that hikers seldom visit, so she speculated that might be the reason why the damage went unnoticed for an extended period of time.
The BLM is continuing to research the oil spill to determine how to best rehabilitate and restore the land. Crandall said that could include cleaning, removal or even leaving the oil and letting it continue to break down since it has been there several decades.