Escalante oil spill raises questions about remote clean-ups


After four dusty days spent slithering through slot canyons and scrambling over boulders in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, this morning’s walk is notably refreshing. Steve Defa, a 59-year-old psychotherapist from Escalante, Utah, is leading me up a sandy wash shaded by big ponderosa pines and smaller pinyons. The air is fragrant with pine needles and sage after last night’s rain; the air pleasantly cool.

After a mile or so, we emerge into the canyon country for which the monument is known. Sandstone walls pocked with shadows and studded with green rise on either side. “This is backpacking heaven,” Defa says of his 1.9 million-acre backyard. “There’s more here than a person will ever get to in a lifetime.”

Coyote Gulch, in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Courtesy Flickr user snowpeak

Soon, though, he picks up a tar ball the size of a brussels sprout and rolls it in his hand. I notice a young conifer bent sideways from a flood, its upper branches looking like they’ve been dipped in tar. Plants growing in the wash are black and brittle. “This is where it really begins,” Defa tells me, ducking under some bare willows. An acrid smell creeps into the fresh morning air; it smells like hot summer days of my childhood, when the new asphalt poured into cracks in the pavement became soft and gooey and I’d poke it with a stick.

A quarter-mile more and we come to an eight-inch layer of crude, dried to the consistency of warm asphalt and mixed with gravel and rocks. The layer extends four miles up Little Valley Wash, varying in depth and composition as it meanders across the landscape like a greasy black snake. Similar scenes can be found in three nearby washes, all of which drain into the Escalante River – a tributary of the Colorado – and all of which spill down from Death Ridge, a plateau on which Houston-based Citation Oil operates 19 wells.

A month ago, two hunting guides on the trail of a trophy buck stumbled upon the oil. They reported it to the Bureau of Land Management, which responded with a team of geologists, petroleum engineers, biologists, botanists and law enforcement officials. The group is still in the process of combing the drainage for more damage and investigating the faulty well (which has already been shut down). No one knows yet just how much oil is on the ground – Defa guesses up to 1,000 barrels altogether; the BLM simply calls it “significant.” And no one knows how old the oil is: Some of it may be more than three decades old, some just a few months.

Adding to the mess is Citation Oil’s seeming attempts to deflect blame. Two years ago, the company was busted for another spill in the same region. As with this spill, they failed to report it to the state as required by law and seem to have suggested that the spills occurred before they took over the wells, which have been in operation since the 1960s.

For Defa, such transgressions are unforgiveable. He began hiking and backpacking this country when he was a boy growing up near Salt Lake City, and moved here six years ago to be closer to the scarcely populated wilderness he loves. But the relatively new integration of Defa and roughly 200 other outdoorsy types into the predominately conservative, Mormon community of Escalante (population 800) over the past 18 years hasn’t been without cultural tension. Many locals were opposed to the national monument designation in 1996; most newcomers not only support it, but often profit from it, and the recent brouhaha over the oil spill has only worsened relations. The hunters who found the spill refuse to reveal their identities for fear of retribution from the local community.

Instead, Defa has voluntarily become the face of local environmentalists’ response to the spill, as well as of an anti-fracking coalition that formed last fall after a different oil company proposed testing on private land in town. Now, he says, many locals won’t give him the obligatory two-finger salute when their pickups pass on the street. “I’m the kind of person who doesn’t care, so that helps,” he quips.  When I ask if he’d call himself an environmentalist, he grins. “I’ve been called worse.”

Defa’s joking aside, the spill highlights an issue faced by towns across the Southwest, from Durango to Moab. As tourism and recreation overtake resource extraction as the primary economic driver in some places, resentment between locals and “move-ins,” as they’re called in Escalante, bubbles to the surface. Tourism now makes up 89 percent of the economy in the counties surrounding Grand Staircase-Escalante, but rarely provides the kind of lifelong, retirement-with-benefits job security that extractive industries once could. Escalante residents who long for that kind of stability view Defa’s efforts to call national attention to the spill as undermining it.

Asphalt-like oil in Little Valley Wash, southwest of Escalante, Utah. Courtesy Steve Defa.

“We took a pretty strident stance and called for the suspension of (Citation’s) leases,” Defa admits. “We think this is a country that needs real protection.”

While federal officials haven’t (and likely won’t) suspend Citation’s leases, the spill has raised questions about drilling in a region becoming increasingly popular among outdoor enthusiasts. If the hunters hadn’t happened upon the spill, would it have been eventually covered with sand and gravel and faded unnoticed into the landscape? How many other “significant” oil spills in remote places go unreported? And most immediately pressing, what’s the best way to clean up off-road, off-trail contamination in a wild place? Spills like Exxon-Valdez have taught scientists that scalding water, heavy machinery and hordes of well-intentioned but poorly trained volunteers can sometimes harm the environment as much as the actual spill. Yet left untouched, flash floods could stir up the oil and move it further into the drainage.

“To clean this up, you’d have to ruin the canyon to some extent,” Defa says, peering at the damage from beneath a blue baseball cap. “You’re not going to get this out with a shovel.”

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.

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