Bureau of Land Management officials mop up oil that leaked from an aging rig in Utah and may have leached into the Green River.

Courtesy Bureau of Land Management

Bureau of Land Management officials mop up oil that leaked from an aging rig in Utah and may have leached into the Green River.

Utah Oil Spill Has Environmentalists Fearing for Colorado River

Officials are mopping up a spill that sent an undetermined amount of oil into the Green River—and potentially into the Colorado River, environmental groups said.

On May 21 between 100,000 and 125,000 gallons of oil leaked from a 45-year-old well 50 miles north of Moab, Utah, near the Green River, the Colorado River’s main tributary. The well was capped, but two days later the area was flooded in a rainstorm and the oil overflowed its containment ponds, four environmental groups said in a statement on May 29.

As many as 3,000 to 4,000 gallons per hour of a mixture of oil and treated water may have leaked after a valve failed on an older rig owned by the S.W. Energy Corp., the Moab Sun News reported.

The Bureau of Land Management said it had contained the leak by May 22, assisted by S.W. Energy, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the newspaper said. Subsequent rains on Friday May 23 “overwhelmed the prevention measures, causing oil and some surface contaminants to move downstream in the wash and enter the Green River,” the Moab Sun News said. The exact amount of oil and surface contaminants leaching into the Green River was not known, Beth Ransel, Moab field manager for the Bureau of Land Management, told the newspaper.

The environmental groups said that even that wasn’t an accurate assessment, because any oil would have washed downstream quickly and thus would have already moved on from the place where BLM agents tested the water for oil content. With spring runoff speeding up the river and augmenting the water volume, the environmental groups said, testing should have been done farther downstream, especially since federal and state officials didn’t arrive until 12 to 18 hours later.

“No known sampling of downstream water supplies has been performed, raising criticism from residents across the region,” said the Utah Rivers Council, the Sierra Club, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Living Rivers Colorado River Keeper in a joint statement.

EPA and other officials said the spill is under control and contained in the wash, although it will take another week to finish cleaning it up.

“The important thing is once it was discovered, modifications were put into place to make sure no more got into the river,” said Curtis Kimbel, from the EPA’s Region 8 office in Denver, told The Salt Lake Tribune on May 28. “We’re confident the material is now contained in the wash.”

But 15 or 20 miles downstream from where Salt Wash hits the Green River, one resident said he saw oil and shot some photos from about 1,000 feet above the river, where he was camping.

“On Saturday morning when I got up, I took my camera to the canyon rim to take some pictures. I was startled to find this oil sheen on the river,” said software developer Jim Collar to The Salt Lake Tribune. “It was very visible. It was river wide, wall to wall. It was there when we left the next day.”

The Green River flows into the Colorado River, The Salt Lake Tribune noted, quoting John Weisheit, conservation director of Living Rivers and the Colorado Riverkeeper. From there it moves into Lake Powell, then courses through the Grand Canyon, then into Lake Mead and from there, into California’s Imperial Valley and the water supply of millions of people in Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego, Weisheit told the newspaper.

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Utah Oil Spill Has Environmentalists Fearing for Colorado River

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