Containment the Goal of Initial Oil Spill Cleanup

Mike Gorrell
Monday, June 14, 2010

Chevron is expected to unveil a cleanup plan this morning, after a day in which the company focused on containing an oil leak that fouled Red Butte Creek and Liberty Park pond, in hopes of keeping the toxic spill from reaching the Great Salt Lake.

An oily sheen could be seen Sunday afternoon on the surface of the Jordan River as it flowed through Rose Park Golf Course. But Utah Division of Water Quality scientists did not visually detect any oil farther downstream at a small dam in the lake's marshlands, almost seven miles from the source of the leak in a Chevron pipeline on Salt Lake City's east bench.

"That's good news that it hasn't reached the Great Salt Lake," DWQ Director Walt Baker said of the critical migratory bird habitat, the ultimate recipient of whatever flows down normally docile Red Butte Creek.

The creek's character changed sometime early in the weekend when a buried, 10-inch diameter Chevron pipeline carrying crude from northwestern Colorado's oil fields sprung a major leak.

An estimated 50 gallons of oil gushed into the stream each minute for an unspecified amount of time before the leak was detected. By the time the flow finally was cut off, Salt Lake City Fire Department officials said as much as 21,000 gallons of oil may have entered the creek, which flows into Liberty Park.

Homeowners in the posh Harvard-Yale-Yalecrest neighborhood traversed by the creek assessed the damage to their yards Sunday as Salt Lake City officials made the rounds, listening to concerns and urging property owners to leave the cleanup to Chevron's expert crews.

"It's best if you allow teams that are trained to do their jobs," said Lisa Harrison-Smith, spokeswoman for Mayor Ralph Becker, who visited the impacted area with city council members J.T. Martin and Jill Remington Love.

"This is one of the most beautiful parts of the city," Becker said as he walked the rainy streets. "They've taken care of the river for years because they know what an amenity it is."

While a team of Chevron-led investigators carefully excavated a trench to gain access to the pipeline and find out why it failed, most of the 70 people the company had on the ground Sunday were dealing with the denser concentration of oil accumulating in Liberty Park pond.

They manipulated plastic booms to confine the oil to small portions of the pond, where it could be vacuumed more easily and deposited in storage containers and mobile oil tankers flanking the shore.

Colleagues along the banks repeatedly honked foghorns to scare sea gulls and other birds away from landing on the pond's filmy surface. Their efforts were mostly successful, but Harrison-Smith said more oil-covered birds were sent Sunday to Hogle Zoo for cleaning, increasing the overall number of treated waterfowl to about 200.

An intense odor arose from the pond, to the chagrin of joggers and walkers who were allowed to return to the park Sunday after Saturday's closure for initial disaster response.
"It smells like the inside of a gas station," said Jack Mayer, an everyday exerciser at the park. "It's just horrible, especially with all the baby ducks out there. You expect these [oil company] people to do better than that. There shouldn't be any chance of this happening."

But it did. And Chevron spokesman Sean Comey reiterated Sunday the company's commitment to clean up the damage and respond appropriately to claims filed by impacted residents.

"We regret this problem that has caused the challenges now facing the community. Chevron takes full responsibility for addressing the situation," he said.

Dan Johnson, another Chevron spokesman, said the company has brought in employees from California, Texas, Colorado and Idaho to supplement efforts of local crews and contractors.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Coast Guard officials also arrived Sunday in Salt Lake City to participate in the investigation of the pipeline rupture, which occurred in a utility corridor near other buried water and natural gas pipelines. EPA also will have a say on the acceptability of the emergency response plan Chevron was putting together Sunday, Johnson said.

"We have to submit it to the [government] agencies to see if it's what they think needs to be done," he said. "I'm sure the cleanup plan will be part of the discussion," at a public meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at Clayton Middle School, he said.

To keep oil from reaching the Great Salt Lake, crews installed booms that absorb oil "like a big roll of socks" around the outlets of two storm drains that carry water underground from Liberty Park pond to the Jordan River.

Additional booms were laid down across the river at several locations as it flows north toward the lake, each group of booms seemingly reducing but not completely eliminating the flow of the oily film.

Kevin Tetreault, 41, a homeless man who has been staying with friends in the brushy area near the storm drain's intersection with the river, thought the spill was worse Sunday than Saturday.

"Not just with the sheen on it, but the stench. I don't like the smell," he said, then chuckling: "There were a bunch of kids here earlier, saying 'There goes the fishing.' "

Along with Salt Lake Valley Health Department officials, state Water Quality inspectors took samples along the length of Red Butte Creek and the lower Jordan River, trying to quantify the extent of toxic elements such as toluene or benzene actually in the water.
Results of those samples should be available today, said Water Quality Director Baker.
Harrison-Smith said the mayor's office has been satisfied with Chevron's response to the spill. "They have worked quickly to resolve the problems," she said. "We hope that continues. We have no reason to believe it won't."

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