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Oil spill in Red Butte Creek threatens waters, wildlife

Red Butte Creek, Liberty Park, Jordan River affected

SALT LAKE CITY — Containment of a crude oil spill estimated at around 20,000 gallons into Red Butte Creek is expected to last well into the night and continue through Sunday as multiple agencies work to mitigate impacts to the stream and wildlife.

The fracture of the Chevron pipeline sent oil gushing into the riparian corridor, leaving the thick, tacky substance clinging to rocks, soil and any fish and birds in its path.

A biology teacher from Rowland Hall watched with dismay the stream "running black" on Saturday.

The creek that runs through his backyard and normally gives him such delight instead swamped the morning air with a horrible smell.

"It stinks and it is toxic," Peter Hayes said. "Whatever is in that creek will die. I have so little faith in oil companies to take care of this."

Even as the BP Gulf Coast oil tragedy and its stumbling cleanup efforts continue to dominate the news, Salt Lake City awakened Saturday morning to its own ecological disaster winding its way through Salt Lake neighborhoods and turning Liberty Park into a command center.

Where children would normally play and chase ducks, those same waterfowl were coated with the gooey substance, helplessly trying to groom the oil off themselves.

Jane Larson, an animal care supervisor at Hogle Zoo, said between 150 and 200 birds — mostly Canada geese — were herded into temporary corrals and taken to the zoo for the cleansing process. The birds will either remain at the zoo for the time being or go to a wildlife rehabilitation center.

The all-day effort tapped specialists with the state Division of Wildlife Resources and the state agriculture department.

The agencies, also joined by Tracy Aviary employees, will return to the park for the next several days to look for stragglers that may have been missed in the initial sweep.

"It's going to be a concerted effort on the part of many groups," Larson said.

Pipeline fracture

The pipeline fracture most likely happened at about 10 p.m. Friday on the south side of Red Butte Creek. The 10-inch-diameter line runs down Emigration Canyon to the company's refinery near Beck Street, carrying medium crude oil from western Colorado and eastern Utah to the Salt Lake Valley.

Chevron reported receiving high and low pressure alarms Friday evening, but the nature of the alarm did not give a location that would pinpoint the trouble.

Just before 7 a.m. Saturday, however, Salt Lake police and fire received reports of petroleum odors near the Veterans Administration facility on 500 S. Foothill Drive. It was then that the crude oil was discovered in Red Butte Creek, with 50 to 60 gallons gushing into the stream every minute. Crews reached the shutoff valve seven miles upstream from the leak at 7:45 a.m. By 11:20 a.m., the spill was at 20 to 25 gallons per minute.

In the meantime, crews hastily issued a warning for residents to stay away from Red Butte Canyon and shut down Liberty Park for the day, where a command center replaced afternoon recreation.

The pond at Liberty Park — Liberty Lake — was soon covered with thick black oil slicks, and residents along the streams reported seeing dead fish.

A handful of residents began making phones calls to emergency dispatchers, concerned about the petroleum odor wafting into the air.

A persistent rainfall left over from Friday's night's thunderstorm helped clear the air of the stink, and as news briefings continued throughout the day, the calls tapered off, said Salt Lake Fire spokesman Scott Freitag.

A construction crew in the neighborhood began using its heavy equipment to help dam the stream in early efforts to stanch the flow, Freitag said.

"Our real concern is keeping people safe and keeping the oil from reaching the Great Salt Lake," he added.

Crews are using absorbent booms and creating dams in an effort to contain the spill, but some oil has already leaked to the Jordan River.

Work will continue

By 4 p.m., Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker was back in town, cutting short a trip to Oklahoma to address the spill.

He, like others, was grim-faced about the urgency of what needs to happen this weekend and the work that will continue in the days ahead.

"We have a mess on our hands" as the result of what he termed a "bad accident."

Becker added that the city intends to get to "the bottom of what made this happen. ... The city is not going to rest until we see the cleanup through."

Early on, city officials stressed that the city's culinary water system was not impacted by the spill and that household water is safe to drink.

The vitality of the aquatic wildlife, birds and vegetation that depend on Red Butte Creek is another matter.

Employees with the state Division of Water Quality spent Saturday sampling the water from the creek just below the spill, downstream through Liberty Park and where the stream discharges into the Jordan River.

Jim Harris, the division's monitoring section manager, said samples will be taken multiple times at those locations throughout the coming days to determine the extent of the stream's contamination.

"We're looking for a wide range of organic compounds," Harris said. "They are likely to kill a lot of aquatic wildlife — fish and birds, bugs and reptiles."

The immediate goal, of course, is to clean up the spill and save the wildlife from its impacts, noted Dan Griffin, an environmental engineer for the agency and permit writer.

He stressed that simply removing the oil — while a paramount concern — can create a whole host of problems if it is not done correctly.

"Right now there appears to be crude oil in the creek beds along the creek, and that has to be cleaned out, and you have to do that properly," he said. "If you force it into the creek bed or the soils and damage or destroy the natural habitat — the cleanup can ruin the environment of the creek completely."

Oil affects the natural water resilience of waterfowl and contaminates moss and algae, which are then consumed by animals and fish, Griffin said.

The severity of the spill, Griffin said, is not to be taken lightly.

"The size of the spill, compared to what is going on in the Gulf, the impact would be proportional," he said.

The state is likely to issue a notice of violation to Chevron for the discharge, Griffin said, and a settlement will include costs to cover the cleanup. That is a process that could take months to complete as the investigation unfolds.

Full responsibility

An EPA investigator is also probing the impacts of the spill and will help kickstart any cleanup efforts that merit federal intervention.

A team of investigators from Chevron is arriving in Salt Lake City from Houston, and a special hotline has been set up to field complaints or questions from residents. The number is 1-866-752-6340.

Chevron spokesman Mark Sullivan said the company takes full responsibility for the spill and intends to cover all financial costs of the containment and cleanup. The pipeline was last inspected in 2008, he added, and showed no problems that would raise concern. Most pipeline fractures are due to water-caused corrosion, he said.

"We understand the sensitivity surrounding the oil industry right now, and we take responsibility for fixing this," he said.

Becker also stressed that the city "would work with Chevron, but we won't leave it to Chevron."

Contacts on the oil spill

The public may register questions or concerns regarding the Chevron oil spill with the city in three ways. The Salt Lake Joint Information Center will field calls at 801-535-7171, or the public may e-mail or fill out an online form at Community Emergency Response Teams will be visiting affected neighborhoods today to distribute information.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews,;