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Activists refuse funds from Chevron oil spill settlement

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SALT LAKE CITY — Two environmental groups on Wednesday refused money from Chevron based on a settlement with the city over damage from an oil spill into Red Butte Creek.

Utah's Division of Water Quality and Salt Lake City officials negotiated last year with Chevron, which agreed to pay the city $3 million for mitigation projects to help clean up issues caused when more than 33,000 gallons of crude oil flowed into Salt Lake's native waters on June 12, 2010. At a later date, even more oil escaped Chevron's lines, impacting soil only.

The funds for restoration projects is part of a $4.5 million settlement with Chevron, $1 million of which went to the city to off-set "lost use" revenue for Liberty Park and the Jordan River, during the time both were closed to the public. Another $500,000 was paid to the state as a civil penalty for the two offenses.

Following a public comment period, a variety of restoration projects were finalized in early February, and the city held workshops on Tuesday and Wednesday to get public input on prioritization of those issues.

Jeff Salt, executive director of the Great Salt Lakekeeper, was joined by residents at a public protest where he said he will not accept the $20,000 granted toward his agency's project. He said the "settlement agreement is flawed and does not actually represent the legitimate opportunity to restore the Red Butte Creek."

He said the process used to arrive at the decision was "tainted" by a variety of conflicts of interest, specifically city officials performing consulting work on the matter.

"The projects awarded are irrelevant and don't address the real issue," Salt added. He'd rather see the money go toward ongoing cleaning of the creek bed, removal of existing residue and prevention of future incidents that might compromise water systems within the city.

Other groups that received funding from the settlement include the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Salt Lake City Corporation, Jordan River Commission, Salt Lake Valley Health Department, Salt Lake County Watershed Planning and Restoration Program, Farmington Bay Water Fowl Management Area, Tracy Aviary and the Salt Lake County Fish and Game Association.

Salt Lake City spokesman Art Raymond said mitigation projects proposed by the city totaled more than $2.6 million and yet it received $1.7 million. While the city's portion makes up more than half of the total project money, it wasn't what officials had hoped for, he said.

Projects include enhancing habitats for fish and other species that migrate within the creek's corridor, restoration of the pond at Liberty Park and other environments surrounding the creek bed, bolstered training and equipment supplies, as well as watershed outreach and educational programming, among others. A list of those awarded funding can be found online at www.deq.utah.gov.

Salt had hoped to get $40,000 to purchase a covered truck and load it with tools, creating a mobile response unit for ongoing and future cleanup efforts along the Red Butte Creek and the Jordan River.

Salt is asking that the city start the allocation process over, giving the public a fairer shake at project proposals.

The Salt Lake County Fish and Game Association was awarded just a third of the $382,000 it asked for to restore portions of the popular Miller Park and Bonneville Glen area. Association President Dan Potts said he will also turn down the $90,000 allocated for his proposed project, as he believes it won't accomplish what he intended.

A similar city proposal was funded in full, about $767,600, to restore a bird refuge at the 900 S. 1750 East park, as well as trail establishment and installation of lighting.

"I feel deceived," Potts said during a planned protest Wednesday. He believes little money will be used to restore water and wildlife areas, but will instead benefit "pet projects" within the city.

Raymond called those claims are "unfounded" and said city plans to restore the creek have been mischaracterized. State water officials, not city managers, made the final decisions regarding settlement funds.

The city, however, has been studying riparian environments throughout the city for nearly 10 years, which gave them an edge at proposing locations with the greatest need for repair, said Renee Zollinger, Salt Lake City's environmental manager. The city's intent, she said, is to improve the natural functioning of the affected areas and restore it to how it was before the oil spill, "or even to better than it was."

"The cleanup is Chevron's responsibility. They have to continue to clean it up and they have to continue repairing the damage they did," Zollinger said. "The settlement money is to compensate the loss of use, the loss of value and all the work and effort our communities had to put into this. We are trying to create something valuable that they are proud of and happy with when it is all done."

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards