A Utah oil field spilled 400 barrels near Grand Staircase last fall — and it’s still cleaning up the crude

Missteps dogged the clean up after a pipeline failure released 400 barrels into a dry wash in Dixie National Forest outside Escalante, emails show.

(Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining) A cleanup crew mops up some of the 400 barrels of crude oil that leaked from an oil field outside Escalante in Utah's Dixie National Forest last fall. Discovered Oct. 29, 2021, the leak from a corroded pipeline operated by Citation Oil and Gas Corp. left a 1.37-mile stream of crude into Pet Hollow in the headwaters of the Escalante River.

One morning last October, the operators of an aging oil field in the Dixie National Forest outside Escalante noticed the amount of crude coming off Citation Oil and Gas Corp.’s wells was less than expected, so they dispatched a worker to see if anything was amiss.

It wasn’t hard to find the problem. The Citation worker discovered a black puddle forming on the ground above the Upper Valley oil field’s main pipeline. A mile-long stream of crude stretched from the failed pipe down a steep gully into a dry wash that feeds the Escalante River known as Pet Hollow.

More than 8 months after the Oct. 29 spill, cleanup efforts continue after a string of missteps, including missed deadlines and mishandled waste, as state regulators weigh what consequences to impose on Citation, a major Houston-based petroleum producer that has owned the oil field since 1987.

Even Citation’s cleanup efforts could constitute an additional environmental violation after its contractor spread oil-contaminated gravel, recovered from Pet Hollow, on nearby dirt roads, according to emails and correspondence obtained from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) through a record request.

The emails indicate staff with DEQ’s Division of Water Quality, including then-director Erica Gaddis, faulted Citation’s response to the spill at various stages.

Interviewed last week, enforcement chief Samantha Heusser declined to comment on Citation’s performance because the spill remains the subject of an ongoing enforcement action. But she was pleased with the work of various state agencies, that, she said, were taking the spill seriously.

“I’m really proud at how quickly we were able to get on top of it and how well we’ve been able to work inner agency, but also with sister agencies,” Heusser said. “Overall it’s been a really successful response on DEQ’s part. We have a ways to go. The cleanup is ongoing and we’ll assess that.”

Today, the cleanup, which was supposed to have been wrapped up by June 1, is nearing completion with a new deadline of July 31. No evidence has surfaced indicating the spill contaminated water resources, she said.

Citation, meanwhile, claims it is cooperating with state and federal authorities to address the spill and its impacts.

“Citation seeks to work cooperatively with all regulatory agencies and strives to operate its oil and gas facilities in compliance with applicable regulatory requirements, including but not limited to the reporting of spills and releases,” said Bob Redweik, the company’s vice president for regulatory affairs, in response to written questions.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Dixie National Forest Supervisor Kevin Wright said he is satisfied with Citation’s handling of the spill.

“We’re working hand-in-hand with Citation Oil to ensure the cleanup of the liquid is completed,” Wright said. “Citation is meeting our expectations as far as the cleanup goes. They’ve been thorough and been informing us and have taken active steps to clean up what happened.”

In their email exchanges with Redweik, Division of Water Quality staffers paint a different picture. Gaddis and others were displeased the company halted the clean up with the arrival of winter weather on Dec. 8; failed to report the spill to the National Response Center; missed cleanup deadlines; and spread contaminated gravel on roads instead of taking it to a landfill. The division also declined to approve Citation’s required analysis of the spill’s potential impacts on groundwater, citing “the lack of investigation conducted.”

A history of spills

This oil field inside the western boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has a history of spills dating back decades. To this day, hundreds of barrels of crude remain caked in washes within the monument, according to Bureau of Land Management records.

The BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, which manage the land on which the oil field operates, have been on notice for at least 8 years that the Upper Valley’s aging pipelines, wells and tanks pose a threat to the environment. An investigation led by the national monument in 2014 resulted in a plan to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the oil field’s infrastructure, which doesn’t appear to have been completed.

Such an assessment may have discovered the corroded pipe whose failure resulted in the October spill, which released nearly 17,000 gallons of crude.

A report submitted by Citation blamed the 2021 failure on corrosion that weakened the pipe’s wall. According to Redweik, Citation performed an integrity test on the entire 8-inch pipeline when it acquired the oil field. The test identified corrosion in the pipe’s lower portion, which prompted the company to sleeve that part with a plastic liner. This liner did not cover the spot that failed.

“At that time, no evidence of corrosion was observed in the upper portion of the line. Although the release point has been repaired, an inspection is currently planned in September 2022 to re-inspect this line,” Redweik said. “Supply chain issues have caused this inspection to be delayed until that time.”

Discovered in the early 1960s, the oil field straddles the boundary between the Dixie National Forest and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, about 10 miles southwest of Escalante. Likely Utah’s highest-elevation and most isolated oil field, Upper Valley sits on a rugged plateau about 7,500 feet above sea level, perched over Alvey Wash to the east.

Eight years ago, hikers discovered oil embedded in one of the Alvey tributaries, spurring the investigation by national monument staff. Their 2014 report concluded that much of the oil found in multiple washes came from historic spills that could have dated back to the time when the field was first drilled in the 1960s and 1970s. The report did note two recent spills associated with pipeline leaks that the Citation claimed were too minor to warrant reporting.

Agencies scramble to respond

Considering the advanced age of the field’s infrastructure, the BLM ordered Citation to report “all undesirable events” within 24 hours, no matter how small, according to the 2014 report.

Although last fall’s spill was anything but minor, it took the company more than 72 hours to report the spill.

“Once I was notified of the release on November 1, 2021, it was immediately reported to the UT DEQ with the written follow-up report submitted as required,” said Redweik, without elaborating on the delay. “Additional notifications were made to the BLM, US Forest Service, DOGM [Division of Oil, Gas and Mining], and the [Southwest Utah] Department of Health as part of the reporting process.”

The DEQ kicked into overdrive to deal with the spill, summoning help from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Likewise, the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining responded and made a substantial photographic record of the spill’s impacts, which was provided to The Salt Lake Tribune. State officials were concerned that a severe rain event could fill Pet Hollow with fast-moving water and push oil into the Escalante River and Lake Powell.

Gaddis issued a notice of violation on Nov. 18, concluding the company caused “pollution which constitutes a menace to public health and welfare and that is harmful to wildlife” and placed waste in locations that resulted in pollution.

Redweik said Citation disputes Gaddis’s findings and the company is negotiating with DEQ to achieve a final resolution to the notice.

According to the company’s reports to DEQ, the spill resulted from a failure in an 8-inch gravity-fed pipeline from the field’s main battery of storage tanks to a sales location on State Road 12. Citation immediately shut down the line and oil stopped flowing out within 15 minutes.

The escaped oil followed gravity into a narrow, rocky gulley, and traveled a mile to Pet Hollow, which was dry at the time, and continued for another quarter-mile before its progress was stopped behind hastily constructed dikes. Using pumps, crews sucked up nearly 400 barrels of oil that was returned to Citation’s tanks for eventual sale, while the company estimated another five barrels, or just 210 gallons, remained, soaked into the soils, staining rocks in the gully and embedded into sand and gravel in the wash.

The flow path was flushed with water to remove oil stuck to the rocks, but they remained stained months later. Contaminated soil and vegetation was bagged and hauled to Garfield County’s landfill, but Citation put a halt to this work when snow began falling on Dec. 8 and sent its contractor home for winter.

“Citation was awaiting approval of the cleanup plan prior to proceeding with the activities in areas impacted by the spill,” Redweik said of the winter delay. “In addition, weather and safety conditions for the workers were important reasons.”

Cleanup interrupted

DEQ inspected the cleanup on Dec. 14 and concluded more work needed to be done and conditions were safe to continue. In a Jan. 13, letter, Gaddis instructed Redweik to resume the cleanup. The then-DEQ director set a deadline of May 1 to complete the cleanup of Pet Hollow and June 1 for the rest of the area impacted by the spill. According to DEQ, the cleanup didn’t resume until March 21, more than two months after Gaddis instructed the company to get back to work.

All the while, the agency was pushing back against Citation’s proposal to use the oily gravel from Pet Hollow to fix roads in the oil field. But the company went ahead with the plan anyway, claiming it had the blessing of local health officials and Dixie National Forest.

“It was determined that the impacted gravel from the Pet Hollow dry wash area could be used in a beneficial manner as roadbase material, which had the additional benefit of keeping this usable material out of the landfill,” Redweik told the Tribune.

In several emails, however, DEQ staff advised Redweik and Citation’s environmental consultant that using the gravel this way could violate state laws governing waste, which specifically prohibit applying used oil to roads. Citation’s cleanup consultant Ben Shoup even acknowledged the plan was “a no-go option.”

Yet over the course of five days in late March, 158 truck loads of gravel were removed from the Pet Hollow wash and spread around Forest Road 146, according to the emails. Before the job began, Redweik’s told Heusser, the compliance and enforcement chief, that only 100 cubic yards of gravel would be removed from the wash. It wound up being nearly 2,000 yards.

Emails from Redweik to DEQ indicate Escalante District Ranger Terry DeLay approved the plan and Adam Solt, who oversees the Dixie forest’s minerals program, directed where to spread the gravel. Kevin Wright, the forest supervisor, said he had no knowledge of the gravel controversy, which potentially could result in another notice of violation against Citation.

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