Why did oil spills go undetected for so long?


Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is special in a lot of ways. It not only showcases spectacular geology but was also the first national monument to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management, rather than the National Park Service. Moreover, it is the largest national monument in the country, clocking in at an impressive 1.8 million acres. Add to this mix the five active oil wells within the monument, and it’s clear that BLM managers face a difficult monitoring problem. So difficult, in fact, that several oil spills remained unreported by an oil company and undetected by the BLM -- probably for decades.

Grand Staircase was designated a national monument by President Bill Clinton in 1996, but the Upper Valley Oilfield, which cozies up close to the border of the monument, had already been producing oil for 50 years. Though the sudden designation of the Escalante area as a national monument stopped local plans for a coal mine, it couldn’t turn off the already-in-existence oil wells that dotted the landscape.

The oil field straddles the boundary between Dixie National Forest and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and when Grand Staircase was designated a national monument, the wells – a pre-existing use -- were allowed to remain operational.

Tenneco Oil Co. began developing the Upper Valley Oilfield in 1964, building 22 wells. Citation Oil & Gas Corporation took ownership of the oilfield in the mid-‘80s, but much of the infrastructure is from the original 1964 development by Tenneco.

On March 23, a group hiking in Grand Staircase National Monument was amazed to discover a thick layer of oil covering nearly four miles of a wash. They reported to local BLM officials that they saw “pooled oil and sludge on rocks” in Little Valley Wash. The next day, BLM law enforcement officials hiked out and confirmed the spill; by March 26, a group of petroleum engineers, geologists, and the monument’s assistant manager had also hiked to the spill and conferred with representatives of the company holding the lease. A small pinhole in a pipeline, recently patched but never reported, appears to have leaked regularly; no one really knows for how long.

Further investigation revealed oil spills of varying size and age in four more areas of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The spills, found in Pet Hollow, Horse Spring Canyon, Canaan Hollow, and Bear Hollow, were covered with dirt and sand, suggesting that somebody had tried to bury the oil, which was a standard response to oil spills in the ‘70s.

The BLM’s official report on the Little Valley Wash spill notes that the “vast majority of the oil spill may be as much as three decades old” and more recently, that “a small pipeline appears to have leaked from time to time.”  The small pinhole leak discovered in a pipeline appears to have been too small to affect the system’s overall pressure, which means the pressure-monitoring systems, designed to shut off during a major leak, were never triggered.

On June 3, the BLM released its official report on the incident. Its findings agree with initial claims that the Little Valley Wash was polluted by various-sized oil spills that occurred over several decades; the spills in other washes also appear to have occurred decades ago. The BLM has put Citation Oil & Gas Co. on notice that it must immediately notify the agency if oil leaks again into the Upper Valley Field.

Meanwhile, though the BLM has started planning new surface-use rules, it has ordered no further cleanup and issued no sanctions or fines.

The older oil has solidified and is relatively stable; digging it up could release more petrochemicals than allowing the oil to remain undisturbed.

The newer spilled oil, however, has not hardened and could be dispersed in spring runoff or flash floods. The Escalante River Watershed drains toward the headwaters of the Escalante River, which flows into the Colorado River. The BLM will monitor the area’s water, and if tests reveal that hydrocarbons are seeping into the watershed, the agency says it will reevaluate its passive response.

The discovery of several oil spills along with some broken equipment signals that it is time to hold oil companies accountable and vigilantly oversee oil and gas production -- especially when it takes place on sensitive lands. Repeated leaks are inexcusable, especially when a contributing factor seems to be aging equipment.

Over 63,000 oil wells have been drilled on BLM land in the United States. After four weeks of looking closely at a tiny area containing five wells in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the oily remains of five spills were uncovered. That math isn’t comforting.

Casey O’Malley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndicated column service of High Country News. She lives in Salt Lake City, where she is a freelance writer and a high school teacher.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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