SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's environment was sucker-punched in 2010 with a trio of oil spills, but the year also brought significant victories in waste storage, clean water and other areas that should give residents cause to celebrate.
Two failures of the Chevron pipeline in Salt Lake City resulted in the release of 1,300 barrels of oil in separate incidents less than six months apart.
The first spill despoiled Red Butte Creek, with water quality officials estimating that 766 barrels made it into the riparian waterway. Full remediation is expected to take years and in the wake of the second release, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker wants the pipeline to remain idle indefinitely.
Farther south in late September, someone dumped 40 barrels of crude oil into the Strawberry River, with the thick crude also spreading to the Duchesne River in the Uintah Basin. Cleanup costs have topped a half million dollars, and the probe has turned into a criminal investigation by the Duchesne County Sheriff's Office and the EPA. A $10,000 reward remains on the table.
While the impacts of the oil spills delivered a blow to valuable Utah waterways, successes were marked elsewhere. In Ogden, for example, a community celebrated the kick-off of the Ogden River Restoration project in part fueled by $1 million in federal stimulus funding.
As of late December, more than 2,400 tons of concrete and scrap have been removed from a 1.1 mile stretch of the river, in addition to 3,800 cubic yards of litter and more than 2,000 tires.
The Great Salt Lake, too, was the recipient of extra TLC, made possible by legislation that put into action the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council. The state Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands is heading up a comprehensive effort involving multiple counties and others in the crafting of a new 10-year management plan. The plan is designed to guide future resource development and instill protections for the western hemisphere's largest salt lake.
As a nod to the health of Utah's rivers, streams and lakes, lawmakers in 2010 had Utah join 16 other states in the country to prohibit high levels of phosphorous in dishwashing detergent. Too much phosphorus spawns the growth of algae blooms, which compete with fish for oxygen.
The state Division of Water Quality, too, worked with police agencies across the state in the collection of unwanted medications that could otherwise be flushed into the state's water system. More than 2,100 pounds of unused medications were collected in 15 "take back" events hosted across the state. The agency also assisted in a national collection effort, which garnered another 3,000 pounds of unused medication.
The year also brought a lull in one of Utah's most ardently fought water wars —that involving the Snake Valley aquifer, a precious source of water in a valley straddling the Utah-Nevada border. After much hand-wringing, countless meetings and a "water sharing" plan crafted by officials from both states, the entire process was kicked back to square one with a controversial Nevada Supreme Court decision. Water right applications are once again making their way through an arduous review process by the Nevada state engineer, which will jump-start a new round of protests.
On the radioactive waste front, Utahns opposed to allowing EnergySolutions to dispose of up to 20,000 tons of Italian waste scored a victory when the company announced in July it was backing off its efforts. The step resolved an expensive, lengthy legal battle that wound its way to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the Salt Lake-based company argued Utah lacked statutory authority to block the material's disposal.
Moab area residents and downstream Colorado River users had reason to applaud EnergySolutions and the U.S. Department of Energy for the removal of nearly 3 million tons of radioactive mill tailings from the site of a now-defunct uranium mill near the banks of the Colorado River. The cleanup project was accelerated through congressional legislation and out of concern that the "Pile" would leach into the river and imperil the water supply for 30 million users.
EnergySolutions' challenges to Gov. Gary Herbert became the fulcrum of policy changes for the state Division of Radiation Control, which had to wrangle with new rules governing the disposal of large quantities of depleted uranium and the issue of storing so-called "blended waste."
Herbert made clear to the company and national regulators he didn't want any more of the rail shipments here until proper analysis has been made, wresting a concession out of the Department of Energy to hold off on any more shipments to Utah. Depleted uranium, while classified as the type of low-level radioactive waste the company can accept, gets more radioactive over time.
And finally, while Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is known for his signature "white hat," he is regarded as anything but a hero by Utah's conservative lawmakers and rural county leaders, who say his dramatic shift in land management policies undercuts local decisions and thwarts resource development.
The former Colorado senator made at least two high-profile visits to in Utah 2010, where in one meeting he assured locals that land use decisions were best made from the "ground up" with ample public input.
But rumors of two new monument designations in the state, in addition to last week's declaration that he was empowering the Bureau of Land Management to designate "wild lands," jeopardized the credibility of those assurances and raised the angst of Utah's leading politicians, including Herbert.
Salazar did give praise to what was hailed as a landmark and precedent-setting agreement between the BLM, environmentalists and a natural gas company officially penned in January. The agreement significantly scaled back the number of wells to be tapped in a culturally sensitive area on the West Tavaputts Plateau, where concerns over damage to more than 10,000 rock art panels led to strident opposition by archaeologists and environmentalists.
Instead, the company agreed to modify its work plan to protect the panels, fund research and document of artifacts and help make improvements to the area to make Nine Mile Canyon's cultural treasures more accessible to the public.