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SALT LAKE CITY — Weekend rains washed a mixture of oil and water into the Green River from a failed oil well about five miles upstream, angering environmentalists because of the contamination.
“This pollution of the Green River could and should have been prevented," said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council. "The fact that the BLM claimed it was contained before it went on to contaminate the Green River with carcinogens is disturbing.”
Federal officials believed the hundreds of gallons of water and oil had been contained at a well site in the Salt Wash Oil Field after a valve ruptured some time on Wednesday, May 21.
By May 22, according to the Bureau of Land Management, the leak had been plugged and containment measures were put in place given a weekend forecast that called for rain.
The BLM said, however, that "intense thundershower activity overcame prevention measures," carrying the fluid into Salt Wash and ultimately washing it into the river, which is the largest tributary to the Colorado River.
There's been no official estimates on the volume of oil and water that was released because of the valve failure at SW Energy's well, but both federal and state authorities say the quantity that reached the river was minimal.
"It did not look like the quantities were very large — it is really a lot more produced water than it is oil so it is probably a minimal impact. But we want to see the data to be sure," said John Whitehead, assistant director of the Utah Division of Water Quality. "The truth is that nobody will ever know how much got in the river, because nobody was sitting here watching it."
The BLM's Beth Ransel said the fluid that traveled down the wash from a subsurface failure of the valve was a mixture of natural ground water mixed with some oil.
The water is "produced" during the oil extraction process that naturally includes salts, metals and other subsurface materials. It also contains some oil.
It did not look like the quantities were very large — it is really a lot more produced water than it is oil so it is probably a minimal impact. But we want to see the data to be sure.
–John Whitehead, Utah Division of Water Quality
Curtis Kimbel, a federal on scene coordinator with EPA's emergency response program, walked the site of the contamination and has been coordinating cleanup and remediation efforts.
He said the release of fluid was large enough to travel 4.5 miles down a wash and an initial estimate of 80-100 barrels per hour flowing from the well has not been revised.
Still, he emphasized the interaction between the river and the released fluid was relatively small.
"A very small amount reached the river Friday night, and I would estimate that in gallons, not barrels," he said.
He added that the river is running between 8,000 and 14,000 cubic feet per second, with flows that will ultimately overcome and disperse the contaminated fluid.
Jim Collar said he was camping about 30 miles downstream of the well failure at an overlook of Bowknot Bend. He woke up early Saturday to engage in sunrise photography and saw the sheen of oil on the river.
"At first we thought it might be turbulent mud turned up by the heavy rainstorm. But the more we looked, we realized there was a definite sheen on the water, which turned out to be oil," Collar said. "It was a sad thing to see. The oil sheen covered the entire river side to side. It was a lot of oil."
Frankel stressed that photographic evidence like Collar's disputes the notion the spill was anything but minor.
Since the Friday storm, two oil skimming dams have been constructed that will allow water to flow in a subsequent storm but capture the "floaters" of hydrocarbons in the fluid. Those and other preventative measures successfully kept any additional contaminants from reaching the river from a rain storm that struck Sunday night.
For now, the EPA has left the contaminated area, which has been divided into four sections based on cleanup strategies being determined by the varying topography, Kimbel said.
"Everything is tracking well, and we think we are going to have the majority of cleanup complete by Tuesday of next week," he said.
Both the BLM and EPA will return for a walk-through on Tuesday and assess how "clean is clean," and if any lingering remediation needs to be done.
Whitehead said the state is waiting on water sampling results and deciding a next course of action for possible penalties to be levied against the well operator.
No culinary water supplies in the immediate vicinity were impacted, but regulatory agencies and environmentalists say any contamination of the Green River is a concern.
Tim Wagner with the Sierra Club pointed out that endangered razorback suckers are spawning at the confluence of the San Rafael and Green rivers, downstream of where the oil spill entered the river.
"The BLM needs to do some very serious consulting with Fish and Wildlife Service to determine what damage was done and if they can mitigate for it," Wagner said, "and to make sure this does not happen again."
Frankel said the BLM should have cleared away the spill immediately after the initial leak. He stated that the Utah Rivers Council expects to see "reports and fines issued for these violations."
Contributing Andrew Adams