Oil spill in Red Butte Creek threatens waters, wildlife

Red Butte Creek, Liberty Park, Jordan River affected

Published: Saturday, June 12 2010 10:00 a.m. MDT

Thick, black oil slicks cover the pond at Liberty Park Saturday in Salt Lake City. Oil-soaked ducks and geese from around the water source were gathered by zoo officials to be cleaned and treated. The oil leak, from a pipeline owned by Chevron, apparently broke sometime Friday night allowing a "significant" amount of oil to escape into the Red Butte Creek system Saturday morning.

Matt Gillis, Deseret News/KSL-TV Chopper 5

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.

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