Two Years After Oil Spill, DEQ Declares SLC's Red Butte Creek Clean

Thanks to a ruptured Chevron oil pipeline, more than 33,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into Salt Lake City's Red Butte Creek in June 2010. The spill not only killed wildlife, including waterfowl, fish, and the invertebrates they eat, but also caused park closures and many residents along the creek to become ill. Now, more than two years later and with a comment period on the spill's closure document set to open, the Utah Division of Water Quality says the creek is clean. Environmentalists disagree.

A draft of the document decision concludes that testing of Red Butte Creek shows that any traces of remaining oil are not a threat to human health or to the environment:

"The testing of the water and the sediments has shown us that the creek pretty well reached a steady state. We see the Red Butte Creek numbers consistent with what we might expect in an urban creek."

John Whitehead, Assistant Director for the Utah Division of Water Quality, says this means that formal cleanup activities at the creek can come to an end, but that Chevron is still on the hook for any further cleanup if more contamination is found in the future:

"We’re going to require chevron to continue to monitor for another few years the water, sediment and macro invertebrates to make sure we aren't seeing any changes, that things stay down at the levels we are seeing now.”

Whitehead says Chevron will also be required to complete ongoing repairs, including those to Riparian areas along the creek.

However, Zach Frankel, Executive Director of the Utah Rivers Council, calls any claim that the cleanup is "ludicrous":

" If I poured a quart of oil in your backyard, you couldn't just hose it down to get rid of it. You'd ahve to physically remove the soil and drag it away because the oil is going to cake on to all the things it touches. Just because they claim they flushed it out of the system doesn’t mean it’s true."

Frankel says oil that remains in the creek bed will slowly make its way into ground water and will once again become a health hazard:

"We anticipate that through precipitation events dumping oil into the creek bed from where it currently resides now along rocks and vegetation and soil along the creek bed, that eventually Liberty park will contain sediments of oil again."

But Whitehead says the division has tested for oil along the creek’s banks and hasn’t found any evidence of a problem.

"We've had high-flow events that would have scoured and addressed some of this oil that might have been residual along the banks and such, and so I think we've pretty well answered that question in our minds."

A comment period on the draft decision document opens Friday and runs through December 10.