SLC residents angry, sad over oil-fouled yards, waterways
Lush ferns, towering pines and a babbling stream fill the backyard of Marina and Ralph Riedel's Salt Lake City home.
Water diverted from Red Butte Creek into a man-made streambed forges an escape from busy lives as they eat dinner on their back deck or watch ducklings hatch each spring.
The couple even acquired the county's first trout-farming license to stock about 100 trophy-size rainbow trout for neighborhood kids to catch and release.
Their backyard serenity was destroyed this weekend when an underground Chevron pipeline ruptured just south of Red Butte Gardens, near the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, and leaked an estimated 21,000 gallons of oil into Red Butte Creek, that flowed to Liberty Park pond and the Jordan River. The oil ran through their yard, killing all but seven trout and replacing the smell of pine trees with a noxious, headache-inducing stench.
"There was so much wildlife here," said Ralph Riedel with a heavy sigh as he hauled more equipment down to the dark brown waters shiny with oil. "But that's not going to return in my lifetime. This is a terrible situation."
The Riedels, along with concerned neighbors along Harvard Avenue, jumped into their backyard stream Sunday morning in an essentially futile attempt to save their trout, but when Chevron representatives came, they said it wasn't safe for them to be in the oil-filled water, Marina Riedel said. Instead, Chevron sent a 10-man hazardous materials crew to do the work.
The Riedel's backyard became the "first priority" for the cleanup effort because they are able to cut off the flow of the soiled Red Butte Creek into their backyard, said Brad Heller of the Earth Fax Engineering firm, which contracts with Chevron.
Crews expect to move downstream to scrub heavy residue, and return to yards for later cleanups as upstream residue washes downstream, Heller said. He was uncertain when clean up would be complete.
The normal sights and sounds of ducklings and songbirds were replaced with the sound of high-pressure power washers and the scraping of shovels along the Riedel's cement riverbed, as workers overturned and raked gravel to loosen the oil and those downstream dredged out sludge.
"To Chevron's credit, they've been very responsive," Marina Riedel said. "Every request they've completed with extreme professionalism."
Not everyone was so thrilled with Chevron.
"I just don't think they responded quick enough," said Gordon Cowlishaw, 49, who has lived by the Jordan River most of his life.
Standing at an abandoned train trestle where 900 South dead ends, and Salt Lake City's Glendale and Poplar Grove neighborhoods meet, Cowlishaw just shook his head Sunday as a continuous rainbow sheen flowed atop the river, adhering in places to weeds along its banks.
"This is where I learned how to swim" he said. "It's kind of disheartening."
Peter Hayes, a high school biology teacher whose backyard is dominated by the Red Butte Creek, was outraged after he was stood up during a promised visit from a Chevron representative.
"They're already breaking their word on the second day of this," Hayes said. His 15-year-old son experienced temporary blindness and disorientation Sunday morning after sleeping with his window open, he said.
Hayes says he's "sickened" by the deep brown sludge now coursing through his backyard, leaving a ring of black tar along rocks. The odor rising from the once-clear stream has forced him to close all of his windows.
"This used to be my pristine sanctuary," said Tom Kurrus, who lives two doors from the Riedels. He pointed Sunday to once-green moss now stained black. "The creek property owners have always banded together and for 35 years I've worked with them to keep it clean. Chevron is trying to make it as painless as possible, but they've changed the landscape forever."
Several residents Sunday complained of the noxious smell from the oil spill. It comes from chemicals in the crude, including benzine, a known carcinogen.
Justin Perry, an employee at the Tracy Aviary, spent Saturday rounding up nearly 200 ducks and geese to be cleaned by staff and volunteers. Perry suffered from exposure to the oil fumes, he said in a gravelly voice.
"I'm susceptible to upper respiratory tract stuff anyway."
Aviary director Tim Brown said some HazMat crew members became nauseated from the lingering fumes.
He hopes his staff can get the aviary in order for a Monday-night member event and its annual fundraiser scheduled for Saturday.
Fred Fife, a former state lawmaker who lives near the Jordan River, said he saw Mallard ducks on the river and on the banks that appeared to be affected by the oil. Nevertheless, he expressed optimism.
"All is not lost," he said. "We'll be able to enjoy the river, and over a period of time, it will be back to what we've come to love and respect. I just feel sad for the loss and damage to the wildlife that's on the river and hope that will be restored as well."
Tribune staff members Bill Oram and D.B. Troester contributed to this report.
Chevron spokesman Sean Comey said Sunday from San Mateo, Calif., that the company has received "a number" of claims calls, and that additional workers were brought in to be more responsive.
For claims, call 866-752-6340.