A hiker traveling last month in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument expected scenic red-rock views but instead found pools of crude oil.
Mechanical and electrical failures at a facility in Dixie National Forest owned by Citation Oil & Gas Corp. resulted in the release of 163 barrels of crude oil and 6,433 barrels of produced water — wastewater that comes out of the well along with oil that is usually saline and contains oil residues — according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. That’s over a third of a backyard swimming pool’s worth of oil.
The spill was reported on Sept. 13. The combined oil and produced water flowed into Willow Creek, which cuts east across Dixie National Forest and enters Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Willow Creek eventually connects with Alvey Wash near the south side of the town of Escalante. The oil traveled 17 miles from its release point.
A spokesperson for the BLM wrote that “impacts have occurred within a heavily vegetated rocky canyon that is difficult to access” in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in email correspondence with The Tribune. The U.S. Forest Service did not respond to a list of questions from The Tribune about how the spill affected Dixie National Forest.
“The whole stretch has deposits of oil left behind in little pools and smears,” John Mackey, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Anyplace where the water went, there is evidence of oil.”
This isn’t Citation’s first spill in the area. In 2021, the Houston-based company was responsible for a spill in Pet Hollow, a dry wash that leads to the Escalante River. The Tribune reported that the petroleum producer’s efforts to clean up that spill were less than satisfactory; clean-up was delayed and a contractor spread oil-contaminated gravel on dirt roads.
The Bureau of Land Management discovered another spill from a Citation oil field in 2014. According to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s environmental incidents database, Citation Oil & Gas Corp. is responsible for at least 29 reported incidents in Utah since 1989.
Bob Redweik, Citation’s vice president for environmental health and safety and regulatory affairs, told The Tribune that Citation diverted their Pet Hollow clean-up crew down to this new release as soon as it was discovered. The crews installed filter fences in Alvey Wash as well as other barriers, like booms and absorbent pads, to start collecting the oil.
Citation will continue to work with the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service, the Utah Divison of Water Quality and the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining to clean up the spill.
“Unfortunately, these events happened, but we have responded to do everything we can to get it cleaned up and to return [the area] to a state that the regulators are fine with,” said Redweik.
What caused this oil spill?
The incident occurred sometime between 5 p.m. on Sept. 12 and 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 13, when Citation Oil & Gas Corp. employees arrived for work and saw the damage.
When combined oil and produced water from oil wells flows into the facility, it first goes to a vessel called a free water knockout, where the crude oil is separated from the produced water. But the valve that transfers the produced water to water tanks from the free water knockout got stuck closed, Redweik explained, so the water could no longer exit.
As a result, the oil tanks started to fill up with both oil and water. The tanks aren’t designed to hold that much volume.
There are controllers that are designed to notify the company that the tanks are potentially about to overflow, but the controllers failed because of a broken wire, Redweik said.
Redweik said that both of these systems were tested 30 days prior to this incident.
The combined oil and water overflowed the facility’s secondary containment, streaming through Dixie National Forest, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the town of Escalante.
Redweik said that Citation still doesn’t know why the valve in the free water knockout got stuck. The company replaced the faulty valve and successfully tested it after the incident.
Citation also hired an expert to look into why the oil tank controllers didn’t go off to alert the company of the oil spill, Redweik said. The expert found a broken wire in the system, which has now been replaced and tested.
Redweik said that the equipment at the site is mostly electric. The company’s hypothesis is that not enough voltage reached the controllers because all of the other equipment was running at the same time.
“Everything was working to get rid of all the fluids, so we were drawing a lot of power,” Redweik said.
The controllers depended on a 24-volt relay system to operate, and there wasn’t enough electricity to trip them. Citation has replaced the 24-volt relays with 12-volt relays so that less voltage is needed to trigger the controllers.
“That should prevent any recurrence of what happened before,” Redweik said.
Citation checked their other facilities in the area and found that they were all operating properly. “We don’t have any reason to expect that another [spill] like this would happen,” Redweik said.
Cleaning up the spill
Cleaning up Citation’s Pet Hollow spill took about a year, Mackey said, and he estimates that this clean-up will take just as long — if not longer. And Citation is footing the bill: “It will not be cheap,” Mackey said.
“Having oil in a waterway, even though it’s a dry wash, will cause the water to be contaminated,” said Mackey. “When water flows across [a wash], some of it gets into the groundwater. Our job is to see to it that [Citation] cleans it up, that they clean it up well and restore the areas sufficiently so that there won’t be recontamination.”
Citation has placed filter fences, absorbent booms and straw bales along the spill and at its end to sop up the oil and produced water. Crews also began digging up oil-contaminated areas and hauling the oil off.
“Right now, [the oil] is sitting on the surface,” said Mackey. “It’s pretty easy to get. They’ll clean areas, and if it moves into clean areas, they’ll have to clean again. So, the key is to take care of it quickly.”
Redweik said that the Citation will pause clean-up efforts this weekend due to the solar eclipse passing through southern Utah. Eclipse-watching tourists have reserved all of the lodging in Escalante, leaving no room for clean-up crews.
The BLM granted Citation an emergency access permit so they could gain access to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Redweik said.
“Given the length and the remoteness, putting people into the middle of this thing is going to be really challenging,” said Mackey.
And with winter coming, time is of the essence. Snowy and icy conditions will make it impossible for crews to access the steep terrain. Redweik said that clean-up crews will keep monitoring the areas that they can access throughout the winter.
Eventually, Citation will have to put together a more formal plan for cleaning up the area.
“We understand the environment and where we’re at,” Redweik said. “We want to be a good neighbor, good environmental stewards, and we’re doing everything we can to get this cleaned up and remediated.”
The Division of Water Quality can issue fines of up to $10,000 per day depending on the level of hazard, Mackey said. The agency has not determined whether or how it will fine Citation Oil & Gas Corp.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with the correct amount of a pool the oil would fill.