What a difference two months make

As I write this, it’s been exactly two months since the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, claiming eleven lives and kicking off the worst environmental disaster in United States history.

As I write this, it’s been exactly two months since the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, claiming eleven lives and kicking off the worst environmental disaster in United States history.

Like many, I’ve followed the event closely from the beginning. (Ahhh, remember the good ol’ days when we believed the broken well pipe was only gushing 5,000 barrels a day?) My interest has been both a professional one and that of a citizen stunned by the sheer enormity of the situation.

So imagine my surprise when a colleague asked if I’d been following the oil spill in Utah. Surely he’d been mistaken. But sadly that was not the case. As it turned out, the traditional outlets I relied upon to keep up with daily water-related news happenings had failed to pick up on this particular story, all of them focused on the BP disaster.

Sometime in the wee morning hours of June 12, a 10-inch underground Chevron pipeline that carries medium crude from western Colorado to a refinery near the Salt Lake City International Airport ruptured. Oil flowed into Red Butte creek, then into the Jordan River. Early reports assured Utahns that oil from the 33,000 gallon spill had been contained and wouldn’t reach the Great Salt Lake (hauntingly reminiscent of the early predictions that the BP oil spill wouldn’t reach the shores of the Gulf states).

Once Chevron crews were able to cap the pipeline (Chevron-1, BP-0), it was determined that an electrical arc from a power line had punctured a hole in the pipeline. The actual cause of the spark is under investigation.

Unlike the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which gave the public several weeks to brace themselves for landfall, the Chevron spill immediately affected residents. Within days, oil showed up in neighborhood wetlands, backyards, parks. Canada geese and ducks were coated with thick sludge. The pungent, putrid smell of crude hung in the air of residential housing developments.

In the days since the accident, crews and volunteers have boomed, mopped, filtered and vacuumed up about 21,000 gallons of the oil. And Chevron is planning to flush Red Butte Creek to help rinse the waterway of any residual oil.

The company said it fully intends to pay for response and cleanup costs. As of yet, nobody has ventured an official estimate of how much Chevron will be on the hook for, but early guesses are in the low millions — a relative bargain compared to the $2 billion and counting that BP has shelled out.

Settlement discussions are currently in progress. Still, the Utah Rivers Council has requested Chevron set up an escrow account in the amount of $15 million to pay for damages and cleanup expenses. Just in case.

Two things strike me about this story: First, Chevron’s handling of the spill has essentially been praised by the local community. Somehow, Chevron was able to do what BP has failed miserably to accomplish, and that is provide a visible, effective response to a most unfortunate, disastrous, and tragic incident.

Now granted, Chevron’s gaffe was much smaller than its big brother’s — which leads me to my second observation: Two months ago we would have been horrified to hear that 33,000 gallons of medium crude had leaked into a sensitive urban ecosystem, affecting birds, fish, and residents. We would have demanded press conferences and answers. We would have vilified Chevron, pounded our fists and called for heads to roll. We would have been angry. Livid. Disgusted.

But that would have been two months ago.

Now? Well, now, compared to the over 88 million gallons of oil spilled to date in the Gulf of Mexico, I guess it’s just not that big a deal. And that’s the saddest thing of all.

Angela Godwin
Editor, Urban Water Management

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