GUNNISON — Wind River Petrolem now faces 13 lawsuits as a result of the nearly 20,000-gallon gas leak here. The plaintiffs include 77 individuals, four businesses and Gunnison city.

Many residents have been affected by the gas leak — whether it be their health or their property.

In February 2007, Adrie Ashton suffered complications that threatened her pregnancy. Given their severity and the life-threatening risk posed to the baby, Ashton's doctor ordered her to bed rest.

Six months later, Ashton gave birth to Italia. Two weeks after going home, Italia developed respiratory problems, which lasted for months. After being evacuated from their home in November, those problems ceased.

Or step inside Sam and Jake Hansen's shoes. The sons of Mitchell and Tami Hansen, they began complaining of severe headaches between July and September 2007. In October 2007, Sam passed out and was hospitalized. Their sister, Cassie, developed asthma so severe that doctors placed her on steroids, though they were unable to identify the triggering factor in her condition.

Or try Frank Pike's on for size. Last winter, he attempted to refinance his home, seeking a loan with a better interest rate and a shorter term. His application was rejected, not because his credit was bad, but because his property was. Looking to sell his home instead, Pike was again disappointed when a Realtor refused to even list it for the same reason: The property had been damaged by environmental contamination.

Pike, the Hansens and the Ashtons are just a few of the growing number of people for whom the rising cost of gas means something more than just the price at the pump. They say they are paying the price for Wind River Petroleum's (Top Stop's) underground gas leak last summer in Gunnison.

The personal cost to many residents in Gunnison because of the nearly 20,000-gallon leak are just now beginning to be known, and no one can say how much they'll pay in the future or for how long.

By the time out-of-pocket cleanup costs, displacement and loss of income, property damage and devaluation, past and current health problems and potential future medical conditions are factored in for each one of those plaintiffs, Wind River could end up shelling out tens of millions of dollars in restitution and punitive damages.

But the company is fighting back, trying to mitigate possible claims and judgment against it with a lawsuit of its own. The company is suing Carissa Kuhni, another resident affected by the gas leak. The suit claims that Kuhni hindered cleanup efforts when she put up a "no trespassing" sign on her property, preventing cleanup crews from accessing equipment.

"We have a concern that some of the other plaintiffs will make a claim down the road that we didn't clean the leak as quickly as we should have," said Wind River's attorney Paul Drecksel. "To the extent that those claims are made, one of our defenses will be, 'Look, we were doing everything in our power to get this thing cleaned up, but her actions slowed that down."'

Kuhni maintains she only put up the sign to force Wind River's hand in giving her a promised check for being evacuated from her home and, since she worked from home, for loss of income.

Wind River mainly filed suit, said Drecksel, to force Kuhni's hand into removing the sign and allow cleanup workers onto her property.

"The last thing we wanted to do was to file the lawsuit," he said. "The only reason for that lawsuit was that we need access to that equipment that's not just cleaning her property but the property of everyone in her area. We felt we had no choice; we had to keep that equipment operating."

In early May, a 6th District Court judge placed a restraining order on Kuhni, forcing her to allow crews to access her property.

Kuhni, meanwhile, has filed a countersuit against Wind River.

Wind River now also has to bear the expense of cleaning up the spill.

In cases such as the Gunnison gas leak, the state pays the first $1 million of cleanup costs through a reserved fund.

"The state spent their million bucks," said Craig Larson, half-owner and president of Wind River. That was around February.

Since then, "We are probably in the neighborhood of another $600,000 that we have spent," Larson said.

But Larson says those costs should level off. Keith Christensen, former Salt Lake City councilman and mayoral candidate, and Larson own an investment company that is the parent of Wind River.

Now that cleanup systems are in place, the cost is just maintaining them. That should be roughly $10,000 a month.

But with experts projecting the cleanup's duration to be possibly 10 years, the total remediation cost is looking to be nearly $3 million.

Larson said a couple of monitoring systems already show less fuel in the ground.

"The important thing is we're continually putting in the money to get the thing cleaned up, and the numbers are showing that," he said.

The company performing cleanup operations, Wasatch Environmental, last week released a draft Corrective Action Plan outlining long-term strategy for cleaning up what remains of the gas leak. Public comment is being received on the plan by the State Division of Response and Remediation, an arm of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, until June 18.

And last week, Gunnison city established a Remediation Oversight Board, which will be responsible for drafting the city's response to the cleanup plan and to assess cleanup efforts in the future.

Also last week, the attorney general's office announced it had closed a criminal investigation into whether Wind River knew about the leak and attempted to cover it up.

The attorney general's investigator, Lt. Patty Ishmael, completed the investigation on May 12, said attorney general spokesman Paul Murphy. It was the second time since the disaster last summer that the office examined the matter.

"They did not find any additional information that would warrant any criminal charges," Murphy said.


E-mail: [email protected]