Impressions of the Henrys Fork oil spill on the North Slope of the Uintas this week:
- The smell of crude oil.- Scattered on the floor of Phillips Petroleum's Bridger Lake Unit office were rubber boots, waders, a pair of cowboy boots with oil soaked into the leather halfway up.
A worker said he had been walking around with cold water in his boots all day. Then when somebody helped him pull the boots off, out gushed water and oil.
- Straw covered what was once a willow marsh, with puddles of oil here and there. Booms across Henrys Fork. Oil scum. A rainbow sheen of petroleum on the surface of once-clear water.
- Gravel shining with reflected sunlight beside the South Test Tank. The rocks glowed because they were covered with oil.
- Renee Taylor, Casper, Wyo., an environmental officer for Phillips, was off by herself at sunset, checking a hay boom across Henrys Fork. This was one of 13 booms, 10 of foam plastic, three of hay bales anchored in place with steel poles.
"Oh, the response has been super," she said when we drove up. "They virtually had it under control immediately."
- A bright red looseleaf binder in the office.
That binder, "Bridger Lake Emergency Procedure Plan," is like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - it has everything you could possibly want to know about oil spills. Because it was there and equipment to contain the spill was stored on site, crews halted the flow before it devastated Henrys Fork.
Workers at the pumping and storage facility, which is on Wasatch National Forest land at the North Slope of the Uintas, reacted admirably as soon as they arrived Tuesday morning and found oil squirting from one of the storage tanks.
The tank's equalizer pipe was stopped up, preventing oil from flowing to a nearby sister tank when the first one filled. So, as crude was pumped during the night by an automated station, it was forced out the fume vent on top of the tank.
About 500 gallons showered from the pipe, 300 gallons being captured by the berm around the tanks. The rest went into wetlands, and 20 gallons made their way into Henrys Fork.
Roustabouts abandoned their normal duties, supervisors rushed to the scene, contract employees were called in to bring more booms, more absorbent pads.
They did a remarkable job, but that's after the fact. It shouldn't overshadow the failure itself.
Dick Carter, coordinator of the Utah Wilderness Association, charged that Phillips didn't build its dike so it would really prevent oil from spilling away from the facility. "Oil actually got off the production field."
The 200 gallons that blew into the willow marsh must have some impact on wildlife, he added.
"The Henrys Fork is a major culinary watershed for Wyoming . . . It's amazing to me that in an automated oil field there could be any chance for oil to get off the area and into a natural environment."
"We are going to make some changes as a result of this," said Dan Harrison, Phillips' public information officer in Bartlesville, Okla.
"We are going to extend the diking to the entire eastern side of the facility, so that in the event of a spill it will be totally contained.
"We are also going to enhance the equalizing capacity between tanks - meaning that if one tank fills, then it will equalize into another tank. And we will also install a larger diameter equalizing line," he said.
The reason that much oil shot out was that the accident happened at night, after the crew had gone home. Harrison said Phillips will improve lighting to allow "more frequent inspections of the production facility" at night.
Yet that's only the nuts and bolts of coping with this particular accident.
The larger question must be faced: Should oil production be allowed in national forests areas that are valuable to wildlife and recreationists?
Carter doesn't think it should.
"The primary concern we have is that although this obviously is a small spill . . . the potential for a major problem exists," he said.
"It's high time that the Forest Service sits back and says, `No more drilling on the North Slope.' We're running the risk of a major spill."
For 15 years, he said, the association was "told time after time that these drilling operations on the North Slope are so safe and so sensitive that this couldn't happen."
Now Carter worries about a proposal by Chevron to drill in a much more heavily used area near the Uintas, on the Stillwater Drainage near the Mirror Lake highway.
If Chevron's tests succeed, there will be "full-field oil production in the area" he said. "All we do is run increased risks in very sensitive habitats. That just doesn't make any sense."