GUNNISON Officials in the small Central Utah city of Gunnison are taking action to get straight answers about a gas leak from a Top Stop gas station that last July sent 20,000 to 30,000 gallons of gas into the soil beneath the city.
The leak directly or indirectly caused several commercial shops to go out of business, and now threatens to pollute a river that runs through the city.
The city is also taking aim at Top Stop a subsidiary of Wind River Petroleum, which is half-owned by former Salt Lake City mayoral candidate Keith Christensen Top Stop's environmental consultant Wasatch Environmental, and even the state to some extent, for allegedly downplaying the situation and withholding information.
This week, the city hired its own environmental consultant to provide information about the gas leak and its cleanup, independent of Wasatch Environmental and the state's Department of Environmental Quality.
Top Stop has not responded to repeated calls for comment.
"I'm so infuriated at this process, at this 'Let's keep it on the down low,"' said Gunnison City Council member Lori Nay on Thursday. "We have more questions than answers here, and we're going to take a very strong approach. This is going to get much bigger."
The gas leak became news Aug. 10, when local and state officials ordered the evacuation of an entire Main Street block the block heaviest populated with businesses because of fumes from gas that had leaked from Top Stop's underground storage tanks.
The closure lasted only one day, and in the next few weeks, Wasatch Environmental installed underground soil-ventilation systems. Many people seemed content that the situation was under control. But, said Nay, "That's because they were never told how serious it was. Everyone minimized it."
Since August, however, six businesses, including Top Stop, have closed their doors for good, among them the dress shop, Lila Lee Apparel. Most businesses cited the gas leak as the reason.
Then, last Wednesday, resident Jeremy Taylor and his family were forced to evacuate their home because of elevated levels of gas fumes four blocks away from the spill site. In the direction of that migration and only a couple hundred feet from Taylor's home runs the Sanpitch River, which empties into Yuba Reservoir.
Taylor is the son of Rod Taylor, another city council member.
That night, the City Council hired an environmental consultant to provide information independent of that provided by Wasatch Environmental, which is hired by Top Stop and which provides the information the state uses in its oversight of the cleanup.
"Their whole mission is to minimize it because they only have $1 million, and they know (the cleanup) is going to go way over that," Nay said.
The $1 million she referred to is from a cleanup fund, called the Petroleum Storage Tank Fund, or PST, administered by the state Department of Environmental Quality that companies can tap into to recoup cleanup and remediation costs, after a $10,000 deductible.
If there is any balance left of the $1 million left after cleanup, it can be used to pay third-party damage claims.
The company, in this case Top Stop, is responsible for anything beyond the $1 million.
Peter Stiba, the city's attorney, is "in process of getting in contact with all individuals and businesses who may have been affected. It will help us develop a plan for the future."
Conceivably, that plan includes what to do if Top Stop refuses to pay on a claim for damages the city and others have made. The city's claim is for about $28,000, according to the DEQ, but there is also a combined claim of $90,000 from other individuals.
For several reasons Nay is concerned about discrepancies between the time the leak occurred throughout the month of July according to DEQ officials and when anything was done about it in August.
The date of the Main Street evacuation was Aug. 10. But the leak happened throughout July, and city officials say Top Stop should have known about it then, simply because of the leak's size.
Therron Blatter of the DEQ's compliance section, which oversees companies' efforts to avoid leaks and spills in the first place, agrees.
"The last number I heard was 20,000 gallons. It was in that ball park. Either way, it's a very big release," Blatter said.
Blatter said Top Stop performed a statistical test throughout July to check for leaks. That analysis, called a statistical inventory reconciliation, or SIR, records fuel sales, deliveries and measurements of fuel in the tank. That data goes to a company that checks it out to see if a leak is indicated, and then gives a pass or fail report.
When Top Stop got the results of July's failed test in early August, it immediately contacted the state, Blatter said. "You would think that someone would notice 15,000-20,000 gallons of their product that didn't sell. In my mind, a reasonable person would have noticed that much loss."
The tank in question could hold 12,000 gallons, meaning that a loss of 20,000 gallons in a month surely required an additional delivery.
"Put yourself in their position, and you know that you've got two deliveries of 10,000 gallons each, and you only sold 8,000. It doesn't add up, and it's simple math," he said.
"They were in compliance because they reported it as soon as they got a 'fail' on a test. But I'm not going to say that they were operating prudently or responsibly."
Blatter said he felt the major leak happened when it did in July because of added pressure caused by a full tank. He said it is normal for stations, especially smaller ones, to fill their tanks not even halfway. Such was the Gunnison Top Stop's practice.
But when the Milford Flats fire closed I-15 and diverted traffic onto U.S. 89, which runs through Gunnison as Main Street, there was more demand for gasoline.
Blatter said it's possible the hole was there for a while, leaking slowly, but that the leak was small enough as to be undetectable by the SIR method.
That hypothesis is backed up by the reports of business owners in that one-block area who said that they had smelled gas fumes for months, since the spring. Lila Lee Christensen, who owned the dress store, said she had smelled it for two years before the August evacuation.
Regardless of how long the leak had been going on, Nay says the effects may be felt for much longer. "The impact to our city is unbelievable. It's completely compromised businesses.."
She said the DEQ also required the city to file a GRAMA request to get information.
Nay is also dismayed at the state's refusal to investigate the leak much further than they already have.
Blatter said that the DEQ had requested the state Attorney General's Office to perform an investigation on reports that Top Stop knew about the leak beforehand and actually took steps to cover it up, but that the AG's office dropped the investigation.
"Our thought was to have them do an investigation and either confirm (rumors of cover-up) or put them to rest. I don't think they went very far with it."
The AG's investigator, Lt. Patty Ishmael confirmed that. "The DEQ contacted me when they began investigating this. They said that when they were down there, they heard some people say that Top Stop knew of this long before it was reported. They asked me to check that out."
Ishmael reviewed the documents Top Stop had provided to the state, showing that the company did what was statutorily required as far as reporting the leak when it was recorded.
However, Ishmael said, "The investigation did not involve speaking to (Top Stop's local) employees."
By law, there is no crime to fail to report a leak, but only to falsify documents. Ishmael said she saw no evidence of that."There are no criminal provisions for failure to report," Ishmael said.
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