GUNNISON — Top Stop corporate officials and Gunnison city representatives dealing with a large underground gas leak are bringing out into the open a fight that's been brewing for months since news of the leak became public in August.

Since that time, city and company officials have dealt with each other warily, but diplomatically.

Last week, however, both sides fired shots across the bow.

On Tuesday, Craig Larson, president of Top Stop's parent company, Wind River Petroleum, released a set of 13 "bullet points" to explain the company's position on the gas leak and its efforts to clean it up.

"Our purpose was to educate people that while certainly we're concerned about Gunnison, leaking underground storage tanks are historical, fairly common occurrences. That's why there are whole departments at the state that regulate and supervise them," Larson said.

Then Thursday, Gunnison city's attorney in the matter, Peter Stirba, responded to many of those points, refuting Larson's explanation and questioning some of "Wind River's incomplete assessment of the facts."

"We are extremely disappointed that Wind River continues to minimize the consequences of the gasoline release," Stirba stated in a news release of his own.

The exchange appeared to be prelude to a potential court battle, especially in light of an Attorney General's Office investigation that was reopened this week to look into possible criminal liability on Top Stop's part.

The AG's office looked into the fuel leak last fall but closed the investigation when Top Stop's records showed no evidence of wrongdoing.

However, continued rumors that Top Stop had shushed up local employees who may have known about the leak for years, and that the company had possibly covered up records that could have proved the allegations, prompted the AG's office to take a second look.

The bullet points Larson put out Tuesday noted that there have been 4,341 releases from underground storage tanks in Utah since 1986, that there are 455 current remediation projects in the state and that Top Stop's Gunnison leak was only one of 90 new releases in the state during 2007.

The statement did not refer to the sizes of those incidents in comparison to Gunnison's 20,000-gallon leak.

Stirba interpreted Top Stop's recitation of facts as saying, "Hey, it's OK. These things happen all the time."

That attitude, Stirba said, was not consistent with a responsible corporate citizen that "would do everything possible to protect the environment and the community."

Larson said the intention was to show people that, since leaks do happen, state and industry officials know how to deal with them appropriately. The implication was that such is being done in Gunnison's case.

Larson said that Wind River had been compliant with all federal and state regulations, but Stirba took him to task on that. Stirba cited instances in the Gunnison store's history in which it had not been compliant with certain requirements.

Nearly every point made by Larson was countered by Stirba as being incomplete, inaccurate or a misrepresentation.

The AG's investigator on the Top Stop case, Lt. Patty Ishmael, said that the prevalence of rumors that the Stop Top tanks had been leaking for some time prompted her office to re-examine the case.

"We keep hearing people saying this and that, but nobody will step forward and tell us what they know and how they know it," she said. "This is a last-ditch effort to see if Top Stop (was guilty of) criminal wrongdoing. if people have information, they need to step forward, they need to do the right thing and tell us about it.

"We need information that Top Stop knew long before it was reported that the tank was leaking."

Larson said on Thursday that the rumors were "categorically false."

"What we're concerned about is the cleanup that's going on, and doing as much as we can to clean the thing up. We can't control rumors."


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