To an oil-saturated American viewing public, the spill in Red Butte Creek over the weekend may seem insignificant. Instead of millions of gallons leaking uncontrollably into the Gulf with no immediate means available to stop it, the Salt Lake City leak equaled about 33,000 gallons and was staunched fairly quickly.
But to those affected, the spill was hardly insignificant, and its ecological impacts were potentially no less serious on a smaller scale. The Great Salt Lake and its tributaries form an important stopover for migratory birds — a vital link in the much greater ecosystem of the American West. By all reports, it does not appear the oil will reach the Great Salt Lake, but a number of birds were affected, and some have died, and the toxic smell and grimy mess have bothered, and even sickened, many humans along the spill's path.
Some say Chevron officials have been quick to mitigate the damage and to keep the oil from spreading. Others paint a different picture, blaming the oil giant for destroying pristine areas.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker said the city will conduct an investigation independent of Chevron to determine how the spill occurred and how well the company responded. We applaud this and urge the city to be as thorough and tough as possible. The state ought to conduct an investigation, as well. A report Monday in this newspaper said officials were not sure how best to clean the rocks and plants covered with oil. That's simply not acceptable. An oil company ought to be prepared to respond to any sort of problem caused by a leak.
The leak occurred in a 10-inch pipe that carries crude from oil fields in northwestern Colorado. It was not the first such breach along this pipe. In 2002, a leak occurred in a more rural part of the line, in Duchesne County, that resulted in a $15,000 fine, handed down last year, because the company allowed 30 days to pass before it responded. Perhaps the entire length of the pipeline should now be re-examined and fortified.
At a time when vast quantities of oil threaten coastal shorelines and severe weather threatens lives in Arkansas and Oklahoma, the spill in Salt Lake City isn't likely to grab much national attention. But disasters are best measured one victim at a time, and the Red Butte Creek spill must be treated with the seriousness it deserves.