Salt Lake residents file suit against Chevron over 2010 spills

Published: Friday, March 23 2012 6:31 p.m. MDT

Salt Lake City Fire Department and Chevron clean oil spilled at Red Butte Gardens next to the University of Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News, KSL Chopper 5

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SALT LAKE CITY  — A group of more than 60 residents who say a pair of 2010 oil spills damaged their properties in an upscale neighborhood filed a federal lawsuit against Chevron on Friday, asserting one of the most "significant environmental disasters" in the Salt Lake valley continues to cause them problems.

"The damages we'll be seeking will be in the tens of millions of dollars," said attorney Paul Durham. "It will be sizable."

The complaint represents allegations raised by 66 plaintiffs over the June 11-12 rupture of Chevron's pipeline above Red Butte Gardens. A release of 800 barrels of oil — or 33,000 gallons of oil — went undetected overnight after a wind storm knocked a tree branch into an electrical line. The resulting arc traveled down a metal pole and into the 10-inch in diameter pipeline, causing it to rupture. The oil made it into Red Butte Creek and traveled down to the lake at Liberty Park, despoiling hundreds of waterfowl and leaving behind a gooey, smelly mess.

Even while cleanup operations were in full swing, a second spill happened in December that same year not far from the first spill. While much smaller and detected earlier, it shook the confidence of people who lived along the riparian corridor and Salt Lake City officials who banked on the company's assurances that the first spill was an anomaly.

“It was a devastating experience for the plaintiffs to have tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil running through their backyard,” said Durham, of Durham Jones & Pinegar, attorneys for the plaintiffs. "Although we submitted claims to Chevron on behalf of each plaintiff as required by the Oil Pollution Act, Chevron has chosen not to resolve those claims, and so it becomes necessary to file an action in U.S. District Court to obtain relief.”

Durham said his clients continue to endure residual problems from the spill, despite cleanup efforts.

 “There is residual crude oil contamination in and near the creek which includes numerous carcinogenic compounds. These dangerous compounds are in concentrations above a level of concern for human and ecological receptors, according to data we have gathered," he said.

The complaint includes 38 plaintiffs who own homes in the Yalecrest neighborhood in east Salt Lake with yards adjacent to and under Red Butte Creek and 28 additional plaintiffs whose property is located in the same neighborhood and so close to the creek that they suffered negative effects from the nuisance of the oil spill, according to Durham.

Chevron agreed to a $4.5 million settlement with the city and state last year and a number of restoration projects are moving forward, but Durham said his clients' claims are separate from that.

"A lot of them were not happy with the settlement."

Chevron was cited and fined in connection with the spills, with regulators noting that the company lacked an appropriate leak detection system or adequate shutoff valves.

Durham said his clients suffered ill health effects caused by the fumes from the spill, as well as the anxiety of having their private property rendered uninhabitable or damaged.

Patricia Callahan is one of those plaintiffs represented by Durham.

“For the first 20 years after I moved here, I thought my house was in a little corner of Eden. This Chevron oil spill has largely destroyed that," she said. "I have been exposed to noxious fumes and chemicals that make me ill and prevent enjoyment of the beauty here."

Efforts to reach Chevron were not immediately successful.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

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