SALT LAKE CITY — An outraged Mayor Ralph Becker said the Chevron pipeline should be shut down "indefinitely" in light of a second breach in less than six months near Red Butte Gardens.
"At this point we can't trust Chevron," he said Thursday. The company, he said, "has broken the trust we have in the work that has been done to give us a safe pipeline. I can't help but be skeptical."
Becker's comments came on the heels of another leak along the Salt Lake-area segment of the 50-year-old pipeline discovered Wednesday night.
A faulty valve in a containment vault about 500 feet upstream from the other spill site allowed as much as 200 barrels of oil to escape, but city officials said none of the oil reached nearby Red Butte Creek.
"I am quite concerned we have had the two leaks," said Mark Sullivan, manager of Chevron's Salt Lake City refinery.
"My primary concern is the effect on the trust in the community and our ability to operate facilities without incident … I am very concerned about having two leaks in close proximity to one another."
Salt Lake Fire Capt. Michael Harp said firefighters and hazardous materials teams quickly deployed oil-absorbing booms and built earthen dams after a Chevron employee reported the leak at 11:23 p.m. Wednesday.
After 90 minutes, the leak was contained. No evacuations were required, and University of Utah officials said they had notified students in nearby campus housing of the breach.
City officials said late Thursday that based on initial air quality monitoring at the spill site by Industrial Hygiene Inc, low vapor levels of pollutants have been detected. Chevron spokesman Dan Johnson said those emissions have been confined to the "hot" spot where the majority of oil seeped.
Individuals experiencing discomfort or symptoms should seek medical help or call the Salt Lake Valley Health Department with questions or concerns at 801-534-4600.
Water sampling is also being done in various locations near and above the creek.
"We're ramping up our monitoring, increasing the frequency of it to make sure no contaminants entered the creek," said Donna Kemp Spangler, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Quality. "We've also informed Salt Lake City that we will provide any assistance necessary."
Salt Lake City's Director of Public Utilities Jeff Niermeyer said a shut-off valve within a cement vault approximately 10-feet wide by 10-feet long started to leak and the vault was overcome with the oil. That led to the oil seeping out of the ground and traveling to a grassy area near one of the main entrances to the Red Butte Amphitheater.
Sullivan said improved leak detection equipment monitored by the company's Houston office first reported a problem at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and the pipe was shut down. Within three hours, a ground crew had determined the source of the leak and notified Salt Lake dispatchers.
The leaking valve is not part of new equipment installed after a pipeline breach first noticed early June 12 that sent 33,000 gallons of oil into Red Butte Creek. The oil then traveled downstream to the Liberty Park pond, which served as a capture point to prevent more of the material from reaching the Jordan River. Some oil did make its way there, prompting a public closure of the Jordan River along a central city segment.
The cleanup of Red Butte Creek has lasted months and remediation may take years. The Liberty Park pond, normally drained each winter, remains shut off from the public while Chevron crews are continuing to remove sediment from the bottom. The June spill resulted in hotel stays for impacted residents, some of whom sought medical care for exposure to toxins, and prompted community meetings to deal with the aftermath.
A subsequent federal investigation by pipeline safety regulators proposed levying a civil penalty fine of $423,600, citing the company's failure to have an adequate leak detection system and failing to protect the pipeline against possible discharges of electrical current from nearby utility lines. An investigation determined an arc from the power line traveled into the ground and the pipe, blowing out a hole the size of a quarter. The leak happened during an intense thunderstorm, but 10 hours passed from the time of the failure until Chevron notified Salt Lake City Fire.
Sullivan said the fine was paid Thursday and the company is working to complete the required safety improvements.
Becker said that given the latest spill, it's clear the last round of inspections were inadequate and a full, independent analysis must be completed before the pipeline is ever operational.
To that end, Becker, joined by City Council members, sent a letter Thursday to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration, demanding the pipeline remain dormant until that investigation is complete. The letter also seeks a thorough investigation of that particular segment of the pipeline.
Johnson said more than a half-dozen vacuum trucks are on the scene of this latest spill, collecting oil from the vault and earthen berms. As a precaution, absorbent booms have also been placed in Red Butte Creek. Two investigators from the federal agency are at the spill site.
"Fortunately, things have gone well," Johnson said. "There must be concern that people have about the safety of the pipeline because there has been two spills in six months. That is very understandable. We are concerned as well."
Johnson added that he does not blame the mayor for the mistrust now directed at Chevron.
"It is understandable the mayor's reaction given what has happened here," Johnson said. "Again, our position is we take responsibility for this spill. We are going to own it; make sure it is right. I think we need to understand what happened and build trust back with the mayor and this community … . Two incidents in five and a half months is concerning to me personally and to this company."
When asked if the company planned to set up an escrow account, Sullivan said he did not believe such a fund was necessary, since the company had met its financial obligations in the last incident and expects to do so for this spill.
"The only thing that will reestablish the community's trust is my ability to (safely operate) the facilities every day and to live up to my responsibility," he said. "I am confident we can restore the public's confidence, but I fully expect that will be difficult given the two incidents."
Becker said the city has been in contact with all five members of the state's congressional delegation, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon's office and Gov. Gary Herbert about the severity of his concerns over the pipeline's safety.
He said he's been assured he has "full support" from those offices to keep the pipeline shut down until all concerns have been resolved.
The city has resurrected a hot line from the last spill to field questions. The number is 801-535-7171. Information is also being posted to www.slcgov.com/oilspill.
Chevron has also set up a hotline at 1-866-718-1973.