Report following Red Butte oil spills provides suggestions for the next steps in pipeline safety

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 12 2012 8:44 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Two separate oil spills have left residents near Red Butte Creek worried for the future, but their outlook is better now that the city has a game plan.

"The reality is that there are pipelines of one type or another in every area of the Salt Lake Valley," said Carl Weimer, executive director of national nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust.

Weimer authored a 29-page report that was released Wednesday, detailing recommendations for the city's various agencies, residents and industry stakeholders to help reduce any risk of future problems.

While it doesn't focus specifically on the Red Butte Creek spills of 2010, Weimer said implementing some of the recommendations contained in the report would "give everyone involved a voice" and could improve the safety of the community.

He estimates there are 347 miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid transmission lines underground in the 500-square-mile valley — far too many for federal regulators and the industry to keep an eye on at all times.

Recommendations in the report include clearer standards for leak detection and damage reports on the federal, state and local levels, more transparency and creation of a citizen pipeline safety advisory board that would work with industry officials to review the pipelines on a regular basis.

Weimer also encouraged local governments to require the use of Blue Stakes' One Call system whenever permits are granted for any excavation projects, as well as better planning near pipelines.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker said that while he isn't inclined to impose additional regulations and requirements, the city can be more proactive about keeping track of where people are digging and if damages occur.

"We, as a community, need to take the lead on protecting our community," Becker said, adding that residents can't rely on the industry, which has its own specific interests in the pipelines that are all too often out of sight, out of mind.

More than 54,000 gallons of crude oil leaked from a 10-inch pipeline operated by Chevron above Red Butte Garden on two separate occasions in 2010. The leak compromised not only the riparian corridor it flowed into but also the health and safety of residents along the creek.

Suzanne Cunningham, who lives downstream from the leak site, said she and her family were displaced for more than two months following the June 11, 2010, spill. They also still suffer from the effects of not being told to evacuate until five days after the spill occurred.

"Sometimes we don't learn from something until it happens," Cunningham said Wednesday.

Her grown children won't play in the creek bed behind their home because of an overwhelming odor of petroleum that still lingers in the area, but Cunningham says she's confident the city is taking the right steps to preclude it all from happening again.

And knowing where pipelines are in her neighborhood has encouraged Cunningham to be more cautious.

But Utah remains one of only five states that lack clear standards for hazardous pipelines carrying crude oil.

"There are gaps in what the federal government can do," Becker said. "The report gives us a clear direction of what we can do to protect our residents."

Weimer said Utah does a good job of making information about pipelines available, but enforcement of pipeline regulations and requirements lies with the state Attorney General's Office, which "has more on its plate than monitoring pipeline hits."

"The technology is getting better, but it isn't quite there yet to catch every small leak," he said.

While tragic accidents involving leaking and ruptured pipelines happen all over the country, Weimer said, "Salt Lake really recognized they wanted to learn a lesson and make pipelines here a lot safer."

The report is available, along with other information regarding residual cleanup of Red Butte Creek, at www.slcgov.com/oilspill.

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com Twitter: wendyleonards

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