Utah regulators took their first step Thursday to make Chevron accountable for last month's diesel pipeline spill near the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.
The state Division of Water Quality issued a violation notice detailing how it broke pollution laws when a six-foot section of its Salt Lake City-to-Spokane pipeline split on March 18 and spilled diesel fuel at Willard Bay State Park. The agency also told Chevron what must be done to clean up the mess, monitor the site and prevent future spills.
"This release has had a significant effect on a fragile ecosystem," said Walt Baker, division director. "The popular bird-watching and recreational area has been closed because of this spill."
A preliminary investigation has shown that a length of pipe opened along a seam between Interstate 15 and the Willard Bay Reservoir. Federal regulators, who fined Chevron nearly $500,000 for two Utah spills in 2010, have yet to determine penalties for the company's latest petroleum leak here.
"Any additional enforcement actions will be determined once our failure investigation is completed," said Damon Hill, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal oversight agency. "I can't provide an estimated time on when the investigation will be finalized."
State law gives the company 30 days to respond to the violation notice and 60 days to address the compliance requirements. Afterward, water quality officials would determine any state fines.
"Chevron Pipe Line Company is currently reviewing the notice of violation," said company spokesman Gareth Johnstone in an email. "We are committed to cooperating with the Utah Division of Water Quality and responding to the notice in the required time frame."
The latest spill occurred on a 760-mile line that carries diesel fuel between the five Salt Lake City refineries and customers in Idaho and Washington.
It has displaced six beavers whose lodges helped slow the leak's flow into the wetlands, and it has been blamed for the deaths of a pair of wood ducks, some bull frogs and some minnow-like bait fish.
Migratory birds which are beginning to flock to the area for a pit stop and, in some cases, nesting have been scared away from the area by the presence of more than 100 cleanup workers who have been on site since just after the spill.
Another casualty: the freshwater in Willard Bay Reservoir, an irrigation source for the Bear River Water Conservancy District, where low levels of diesel have been detected. Some of the contamination is thought to be coming in from below the surface, from groundwater leaching from around the split pipe.
Baker said he's eager to see Chevron's response to the notices, especially their plans to prevent future spills and their explanation for the leak's cause. The state's information request notes the last time the pipeline was inspected was six years ago. It also points to the two Chevron crude oil spills in Utah in 2010, which the company blamed on an act of God.
"It does not seem God played much of a role in this one," he said.
"We'd like to see some assurances from Chevron this won't be business as usual, this won't happen again."