Will Uinta pipeline hurt Utah's drinking water?
A proposed 60,000-barrel-a-day oil pipeline would eliminate 250 truck trips between Salt Lake City and the Uinta Basin, but Utah water purveyors caution that the 135-mile project could pose "catastrophic" risks to drinking-water supplies.
"It's not a matter of if but when a pipeline ruptures and we'll be out of drinking water for a time," warned Scott Paxman, assistant general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District.
All three proposed alignments for the Uinta Express Pipeline follow the Provo River's south fork, which feeds Jordanelle Reservoir. This critical water source for Utah, Salt Lake and other counties could be dangerously compromised by a leak, according to comments on Tesoro's plan to pipe waxy crude to Salt Lake City-area refineries.
"The public needs to understand there are issues relative to this pipeline that could have big impacts to their lives," said Jeff Niermeyer, Salt Lake City public utilities director.
The three alternatives, currently undergoing an environmental review, all cross Wasatch watersheds and follow watercourses, such as Beaver and East Canyon creeks, upon which various communities rely.
But Tesoro officials say the 12-inch pipeline will be built and operated to high standards, deploying "state-of-the-art technologies, leak detection, computer monitoring and rigorous inspection programs."
"Safe and responsible operation is a hallmark of Tesoro's operating philosophy," said Michael Gebhardt, vice president for business development. The company is committed to collaborating with the water districts and other stakeholders, he said.
Officials say the project would minimize its environmental footprint by following existing natural gas and oil lines, but the districts see a major downside to this strategy.
"By placing a third, high-pressure, heated, crude oil pipeline alongside two other high-pressure petroleum pipelines, it is really compounding the risks exponentially," Paxman wrote in Weber Basin's comments.
"The potential of more than one pipeline being impacted by the rupture of another pipeline is also much higher," he wrote. "It is past history for those lines already installed, but that does not mean we should exacerbate the problem by adding to this mistake. Three 'wrongs' do not make a 'right.' "
The Central Utah, Weber Basin and other districts are insisting Tesoro take various measures to reduce the risk of ruptures, such as encasing the line in concrete at vulnerable spots. They want "significant separation" from watercourses so that any leaked oil could be captured before reaching a stream. Paxman's comments highlight the need for frequent isolation valves, which can be operated remotely, and emergency-response containers placed at strategic intervals.
Gebhardt said the project is in its early design stages and its actual design depends on an environmental impact statement being conducted by the U.S. Forest Service.
Salt Lake City has asked the service to not even consider the southern 120-mile alternative that follows the existing Chevron pipeline through Parleys and Emigration canyons.
Although it's the shortest route, this alternative carries "too high a potential for harm and is unacceptable," Niermeyer wrote in the city's comments to the Forest Service.
Salt Lake City has painful experience with a crude oil pipeline running through its backyard. In 2010, the Chevron line breached twice, one time spilling 23,000 gallons into Red Butte Creek. A six-mile oil slick coursed down the stream through backyards and neighborhoods and contaminated Liberty Park, requiring a cleanup lasting months.
In all three alternatives, the first 90 miles would follow the Chevron line from Myton west along the Duchesne River and over Wolf Creek Pass.
Near Kamas, Tesoro's preferred route, known as Alternative 2, would veer north, dodging Salt Lake City's municipal watershed. It would follow the Weber River and skirt the east shore of Rockport Reservoir, water sources for 600,000 people in five counties.
"There is nothing more troubling and frankly more irresponsible than to have this significant risk of contamination installed parallel to significant riparian areas and along a major drinking water supply for 18 miles," Paxman wrote in the Weber district's comments.
A third alternative, which combines parts of Alternative 2 and the southern route opposed by Salt Lake City, would run along the west shore of the district's East Canyon Reservoir. It and Alternative 2 would exit the Wasatch in Bountiful at 400 North, near the "B" on the hillside, then run through several small south Davis County towns.
These communities have lodged numerous concerns related to public safety, air quality, transportation and open space.
"There would be impacts to the residents as well as to the hillside. It takes a long time for a hillside to heal," Bountiful City Manager Gary Hills said. "It will be disruptive to our utilities if it comes down 400 North. We expect they would mitigate any impacts."
The towns are also concerned with the "unproven" technology the pipeline would need to keep the waxy crude moving through the line and Tesoro's lack of relevant experience. Although the company operates numerous lines, it has never built one.
Tesoro says the project is needed to address the boom in Uinta Basin oil production, expected to triple to 60 million barrels by 2042. This oil's high paraffin content poses transportation challenges because it is liable to congeal, so it must be kept warmer than 160 degrees.
Most of the current production is trucked for processing to the Salt Lake City area, where three of the five refineries are planning expansions. Some contend the Uinta oil boom is exacerbating the Wasatch Front's air-quality challenges, even though most of these refineries' output is shipped south to Las Vegas and northwest to Washington state.
Niermeyer suggested a better option could be refining this oil in the basin and piping it to out-of-state markets through lines that avoid the Wasatch Front.
Tesoro is hosting an open house on its pipeline proposal on April 24 at Duchesne High School from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at 155 W. Main, Duchesne. It is also maintaining a 24-hour "community care line," at 801-560-3044, to answer questions.
The public has until April 22 to submit comments to the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, which is preparing an environmental impact statement. Mail comments to 857 W. South Jordan Parkway, South Jordan, UT 84095-8594.