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Extent of fuel spill at Willard Bay State Park remains unknown

Published: Thursday, Sept. 3 2015 2:07 p.m. MDT

A crew cleans up after a break in the Chevron diesel pipeline at Willard Bay State Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) A crew cleans up after a break in the Chevron diesel pipeline at Willard Bay State Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Cleanup crews were able to recover 195 barrels of diesel fuel spilled in a pipeline break at the Willard Bay State Park, a Chevron official said Wednesday, but the company does not know how much fuel ultimately spilled or what led to the pipeline's failure.

The Monday afternoon pipeline rupture led to the closure of the state park's North Marina and campground while the fuel is soaked up through multiple absorbent booms that have been placed in a retention and drainage ditch. The South Marina at the park has opened early as a result of the spill to accommodate visitors.

Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, which oversees operation of the Willard Bay Reservoir, said Wednesday that no fuel has leaked into the reservoir and it is unlikely to seep there because of remediation efforts on the ground.

A crew cleans up after a break in the Chevron diesel pipeline at Willard Bay State Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) A crew cleans up after a break in the Chevron diesel pipeline at Willard Bay State Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Such a contamination would have been problematic for the reservoir's role in the district's water management system — especially in such a low snowpack year — because farmers and ranchers rely on the reservoir for irrigation needs, Flint said.

In exchange for getting water from the Willard reservoir, they trade water higher up in the mountains that is treated and delivered to municipal and industrial users.

"It is an integral part of our system," Flint said, and the pivotal source for development of future drinking water supplies.

Details about what action will be taken over the next several weeks were released Wednesday at a news conference hosted by Chevron at its offices in West Valley City.

A crew cleans up after a break in the Chevron diesel pipeline at Willard Bay State Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) A crew cleans up after a break in the Chevron diesel pipeline at Willard Bay State Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

For now, much of the focus is to corral the rest of the diesel fuel and scrub the area of the remnants before the migratory bird season gets into full swing in the next two to three weeks.

Curtis Kimbel, the Environmental Protection Agency's point person on the cleanup, said the fuel poses threats to the habitat of the multiple species of waterfowl that frequent the area. The Box Elder County reservoir is south of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, where the Bear River flows into the northeast arm of the Great Salt Lake.

Officials say no wildlife is known to have been killed by the spill, but one beaver had to be relocated and another, contaminated with the fuel, is being cared for at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Ogden.

A 50-person crew of Chevron employees and contract workers will continue to remain on site of the spill indefinitely, spokesman Terry Duhon said, and an investigation is ongoing to determine what caused the leak.

A crew cleans up after a break in the Chevron diesel pipeline at Willard Bay State Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) A crew cleans up after a break in the Chevron diesel pipeline at Willard Bay State Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Duhon would not say if the 168-mile, 63-year-old pipeline has had problems in the past or describe the overall safety record of the line that runs from Salt Lake City to Burley, Idaho.

He said the 8-inch pipeline is subjected to routine maintenance inspections, but he declined to say what those internal inspections may have revealed.

"Those inspections will be part of our investigation," he said.

Duhon stressed, too, that this spill is completely unrelated to the two failures in the  crude oil pipeline above Red Butte Gardens in Salt Lake City in 2010.

An estimated 800 barrels of oil escaped undetected from that aging pipeline on June 11-12 after a windstorm knocked into an overhead power line and a resulting arc punched a hole in the line. In December of that same year on the same pipeline not far away, another failure resulted in the escape of crude oil, but none made it into the nearby Red Butte Creek.

A crew cleans up after a break in the Chevron diesel pipeline at Willard Bay State Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) A crew cleans up after a break in the Chevron diesel pipeline at Willard Bay State Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

The first leak led to the closure of the pond at Liberty Park, shut down a stretch of the Jordan River and resulted in the displacement of multiple residents in upper east bench neighborhoods whose yards were despoiled by the black, gooey oil.

Ultimately, Chevron spent $75 million in cleanup costs and paid out $4.5 million in a settlement with the state and city that was reached in 2011.

The settlement does not void Chevron's cleanup obligations should any contamination problems surface in the urban creek, and a number of restoration projects are planned.

State water quality officials leveled penalties at Chevron for $423,000 for the first Red Butte spill, and on Wednesday, regulators said the company's pattern of water contamination could be a factor in subsequent action stemming from the Willard breach.

A crew cleans up after a break in the Chevron diesel pipeline at Willard Bay State Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) A crew cleans up after a break in the Chevron diesel pipeline at Willard Bay State Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

"History will weigh in on this with any determination we make," said John Whitehead, assistant director of the Utah Division of Water Quality.

The unnerving effect of twin spills on the same pipeline in such a short duration of time prompted Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker to convene a citizen's working group probing pipeline safety in the Salt Lake Valley.

Grant money led to the commission of a report released last year by Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust.

His report noted that Utah lawmakers could implement more oversight of pipelines in the state and the attorney general's office could explore its role related to enforcement actions that could be taken under damage prevention laws.

In the report, Weimer noted that 45 of 48 states have adopted regulatory laws over pipelines that are more stringent than the federal government. Utah is one of the three states that has not.

A crew cleans up after a break in the Chevron diesel pipeline at Willard Bay State Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) A crew cleans up after a break in the Chevron diesel pipeline at Willard Bay State Park on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

He also said government and industry have the capability of improving transparency through online posting of public documents related to pipelines, but it remains challenging to get information.

"Industry and government could create trust by posting more information than they are already required to prepare, instead of creating barriers by expecting the public to go through the formal public information request process," the report said.

E-mail: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

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