04.15.14

Oil Spill In Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

On March 22, hikers in southern Utah came upon a distressing sight: a four-mile slick of oil staining the Little Valley Wash, which eventually drains into the Escalante River, inside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The spill had not been reported.

The hikers sent photos of the leak to staff in the BLM Utah State Office, who began an investigation. The oil leaked from a pipeline owned by Houston, Texas-based Citation Oil and Gas Corp., though neither company officials nor BLM staff know how long ago the spill, or spills, took place. The investigation is on-going, with some oil appearing to have leaked decades ago while a much more recent “pinhole” leak is likely responsible for new and additional oil leaking into the wash.

“Even if the spill is years old,” reported the Salt Lake Tribune on March 26th, “subsequent flooding could pick up the oil and move it, contaminating surface water and causing further environmental damage.”  Here is a re-cap of news coverage:

  • The Salt Lake Tribune first reported the hikers’ discovery on March 26, with a follow-up story a few days later about officials and residents touring the spill site and seeing what many observed to be more recent—or new—oil. A third article reports additional information on the recent “pinhole” leak.
  • Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, a non-profit organization and Friends Grassroots Network member, posted a blog informing its members about what the BLM is doing to address the spill, get it cleaned up, and avoid future spills.
  • The Wilderness Society released a news story about the spill, writing, “The news that an unreported oil spill has been contaminating the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a sure sign that stronger BLM oversight is needed for oil and gas drillers operating on public lands.”
  • Citation Oil and Gas Corp. was found to own another pipeline leaking oil in the Dixie National Forest, next to the Monument. The Salt Lake Tribune reported on April 2 that the size of the spill was uncertain; federal guidelines require companies to report leaks if they exceed 10 barrels—a “reportable incident.”
  • The April 10th edition of the Wayne & Garfield County Insider reported that local residents who worked for Tenneco Oil in the 1960s and 70s (the company that owned the fields before Citation) recall a substantial oil spill taking place 30 to 40 years ago in the Little Valley Wash, and that there is also evidence of a much more recent spill. The Insider reported that results of tests taken by two environmental scientists, one with North Wind (retained by BLM) and another with Arcadis-U.S. (retained by Citation Oil), may help answer just how old the leak is and what appropriate clean-up measures should be taken.
  • Public Radio station KUER.org, 90.1 fm, reported April 9 that managers of the monument updated requirements for reporting spills—from requiring companies to report leaks greater than 420 gallons to something more strict. As a BLM spokesman describes it in the article, “Now we’re a national monument. We’ve adjusted that to any spill of any quantity, they need to report within 24 hours.”
  • The BLM updated its website April 10th with news of the Upper Valley Oil Spill, including current conditions, background on the what happened, and a “what we are doing” section. “A monitoring and mitigation strategy will be developed as soon as the data and information from the investigation has been compiled and analyzed,” reads the update.

This story of an oil leak threatening a river in one of our most magnificent places in the National Conservation Lands is especially disheartening as it unfolds on the fifth anniversary of BP’s Gulf oil spill. While tiny in terms of magnitude and long-lasting damage compared to the Gulf oil spill, the spill in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument reminds us again of just how vulnerable our rivers and oceans are to the impacts of oil and gas development.

The Escalante River is undergoing one of the largest, most successful and lauded restoration efforts in the West—with youth and veterans conservation corps, agency staff, non-profits, foundations and volunteers from around the country dedicating time and money to restoring and protecting this fabulous desert river ecosystem. To see it threatened or worst-case, undone, by a failure of technology and regulation would be crushing.

All parties involved—Citation Oil and Gas Corp employees, BLM staff, state and federal regulatory officials, non-profit organizations, news outlets, and residents of the area—owe it to themselves and future generations to stay on top of this story, seek out answers, apply pressure to find the best clean-up solutions possible, create consensus and relentlessly work to ensure that clean-up is carried out. Most important, we have to prevent spills from happening–especially in America’s most sensitive and important natural areas.GrandstaircaseSign