SALT LAKE CITY — An electrical arc shot into a crude oil pipeline and left a hole during a summer thunderstorm seven years ago on a Salt Lake City mountainside.
Which heavyweight — Rocky Mountain Power or Chevron Pipeline Co. — ultimately bears responsibility for paying the $30 million in cleanup costs stemming from the crude oil spill that blanketed Red Butte Creek, closed Liberty Park Pond and reached the Jordan River?
Eleven men and one woman spent the week as members of a civil jury battling that question in a federal trial before Judge Tena Campbell. They listened to arguments for five days until a settlement was hammered out Friday over the 2010 spill.
"This had been going on for seven years. It was in everybody's best interest to settle this," said Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Spencer Hall, adding that the terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
Over the past week, the courtroom in downtown Salt Lake City was full of attorneys on both sides carrying stacks of files. The parade of evidence included the battered segment of the pipeline with a quarter-size hole, mangled and melted electrical equipment from a power station, and hundreds of documents and photos.
Under the provisions of a federal law called the Oil Pollution Act, Chevron Pipe Line Co. claimed that Rocky Mountain Power contributed to the cause of the spill of 33,600 gallons of crude oil in 2010 and sought compensation for its costs.
Campbell instructed the jurors that they had to decide whether either or both parties caused the spill, and depending on their decision, they were to determine what responsibility rested with each party.
As the case unwound, attorneys rolled out expert metallurgists, electrical engineers, a fire department captain and company officials. Jurors heard testimony about what Rocky Mountain Power did or did not do, and conversely what the pipeline company did or did not do.
Rocky Mountain Power denied any responsibility for the spill whatsoever.
Documents indicate that its electrical transition station at the spill site above Red Butte Garden is in the company's right of way for its 10-inch pipeline. That pipeline is 182 miles long, originating in Rangely, Colorado, and ending its journey at Chevron's Salt Lake refinery.
Chevron's crude oil pipeline is in two segments, with the 1952-era No. 2 section traversing the Wasatch Mountains and multiple "high-consequence areas" that feature key watersheds for Salt Lake's drinking water supply, as well as populated and ecologically sensitive regions.
Jurors learned about easements and rights of way in the testimony. The crude oil pipeline was there first, but attorneys for PacifiCorp — the parent of Rocky Mountain Power — denied the utility company knew about the pipeline when it constructed its 46,000-volt power station in Chevron's right of way in 1979 into 1980.
Brad James, who has a doctorate in metallurgical and materials engineering, told jurors the char marks on a metal chain-link post — part of the fencing around the electrical station — meant the post had been "electrified" and came in contact with something.
When an attorney asked him if the marks could be formed in "vacant, empty air," James said no.
The utility company argued that no one may ever know what caused the arc that actually came in three bursts over 11 seconds and shot electricity into the pipeline, leaving the hole.
Chevron countered it was the electricity "owned" by Rocky Mountain Power that ultimately arced — through negligence at the station — and caused the pipeline to leak.
Jurors saw photos of charred leaves on trees illustrating Chevron's assertion that it was live tree branches coming in contact with an electrified equipment that caused the arc.
In a demonstration to jurors, electrical engineer J.B. Franklin had a 12-volt battery on the witness stand, holding a short length of cable with an alligator clip for a cursory lesson on voltage, amps and current.
When he touched the clip to the battery's terminal, there was a spark — or arc.
"But this wasn't just an itty-bitty arc. It was huge," Franklin said, describing the events that played out in the June 2010 storm.
"It was a ball of fire. It is literally a bomb going off."
After that "bomb" went off, a federal investigation notes the resulting release of oil went undetected by Chevron authorities for 10 hours.
The 800 barrels of crude oil wiped out all aquatic life in a 7-mile stretch of Red Butte Creek, contaminated the pond at Liberty Park and also made its way to the Jordan River.
An investigative report by the federal Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said an electrical "surge" from a fault current jumped from the metal fence post onto the pipeline — which leads to the arguments unfolding in the federal court room seven years later.
In the agency's investigation — which Chevron fought unsuccessfully to keep out of court — the report noted that the company did not follow procedures to keep its pipeline in a "high-consequence area" safe. It noted that despite required right-of-way inspections, the company also failed to identify the electrical transition station's encroachment for 23 years.
The federal report also noted that the fence post was placed within 3 inches of the pipeline. Federal regulations require 12 inches of clearance. Authorities said the station had been a threat since it was built and the threat was forseeable.
Campbell emphasized to jurors, however, that while that federal agency has regulatory authority over pipelines, it has no enforcement powers over utility companies like Rocky Mountain Power.
Chevron's Patrick Green testified encroachment battles on pipeline rights of way are not uncommon, noting the company is in the midst of a fight in California in which the property owner is "flat refusing" to cooperate.
Some of the week's testimony centered on what kind of conversations did or did not occur in the 1980s between pipeline operators and Rocky Mountain Power's predecessor, Utah Power and Light.
Chevron was fined by both the state and the federal government for the release, and was trying to recoup its costs at trial.
In the seven years since the spill, Red Butte Creek has recovered and Chevron has paid millions to mitigate its impacts to people and the environment.
Salt Lake City convened its own pipeline risk assessment analysis and worked with the company to prevent potentially disastrous effects to the watershed, particularly streams and creeks that provide drinking water, if a pipeline release happens again.
Laura Briefer, head of the city's public utilities division, said protective measures were engineered in mountainous areas where the pipeline runs and could possibly impact Mountain Dell and Little Dell reservoirs, which collect water for the city's drinking water supplies.
In the aftermath of the spill, the electrical transmission station has since been moved.