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Bountiful • Penny Edwards reached deep into a tomato bush and pulled out a pear-shaped roma just beginning to turn red, signaling the imminent arrival of what should have been a bountiful harvest.
Then she rubbed a black fleck on the fruit and frowned as it became an oily smear across the smooth skin.
"This is my canning season. It's just getting started," Edwards said Saturday morning, surveying the nearly invisible damage left by an oily film covering her immaculate backyard.
Who would have forecast a black rain in the late summer that would spoil her and husband Herb's garden? But that's what happened in this Bountiful neighborhood Thursday evening when a storage tank at a nearby oil refinery blew its top and sprayed an estimated 8,400 gallons of crude into the sky.
Officials at HollyFrontier refinery in Woods Cross speculate water had entered the tank, which stores waxy crude that must be heated to 300 degrees to keep it liquid. At that temperature, water turns to steam and the pressure may have mounted faster than the vents could handle, according to company officials. The tank's roof ruptured along a seam, releasing the hot crude.
"It will take several weeks to get in there to investigate," said the refinery's environmental manager, Mike Astin. No one was injured, but cleanup is expected to take days. Astin said the oil poses no health risks.
"It is a natural material. It will biodegrade. The biggest problem is the mess," he said. "We have caused them [residents] an inconvenience. We want to make it as convenient as possible for them to clean up."
Woods Cross Mayor Kent Parry said he was comfortable with the refinery's response.
"They were on it without any prompting from anybody,"Parry said. "They beat us into the neighborhoods to get things taken care of."
Thursday's accident was one of hundreds of environmental incidents since 2000 along southern Davis County's refinery row. Now HollyFrontier and neighboring refineries are seeking to expand their capacity to process black wax, the viscous crude that comes from eastern Utah's Uintah Basin.
Edwards' neighbor Harry Wicker had figured the companies could safely handle this oil.
"Now I don't feel good at all," he said, pointing to greasy spots on the driveway and furniture.
On Thursday, wind-pushed oil settled over a 40-yard-wide swath for more than a mile to the southeast, deep into Bountiful's residential areas. Most visibly hit were commercial strips close to the refinery, where little oil globs clung to buildings and cars. The farther the oil moved to the southeast, the finer the droplets appear to have become. By the time the oil strafed Edwards' cul-de-sac at 450 West and 1400 South, few noticed it at first.
But a close look reveals countless pencil points of oil. Without realizing it, residents were tracking the stuff into their homes and wrecking their shoes.
"We got hammered," said neighbor Ryan Johnson, who discovered oil hit his home before he drove to classes Friday at Salt Lake Community College. He turned on the wipers only to smear tiny oil drops all over the windshield.
"What's most concerning is the fact you can barely see it," said Johnson's wife, Whitney, as cleaning crews arrived Saturday on her street. "Our dog is outside all the time. She's probably covered in it. Even if it's not coming down anymore, we don't know if it's still in the air."
The Johnsons have three daughters, one of whom suffers from asthma.
Workers contracted by HollyFrontier brought residents' patio furniture and other outdoor accessories into the driveways to wash them down with powerful jets. The waste water was collected and pumped into a tanker. The Johnsons figure the fabric awnings over their patio and the hot tub cover cannot be salvaged.
Health authorities are monitoring the oil's presence in surface water. The crude is one of the more benign substances handled at the refinery, according to Dave Spence, environmental health services manager for the Davis County Health Department.
"We are lucky. It's really nontoxic. The basic worry is it clings to things," Spence said. "If you are worried about tracking it into your home, take your shoes off before going inside."
Oil-covered lawns pose a special problem since they can't be cleaned and can easily transfer the oil onto dogs, kids and shoes. HollyFrontier plans to send crews to mow lawns Tuesday and again after the grass has grown some more.
On a wall at the end of the cul-de-sac on the Johnsons' block, someone had painted the words: "Good character like good soup is usually made at home."
The same can be said for good produce. HollyFrontier officials suggest backyard gardeners throw out their harvest, buy replacement goods at farmers markets and give the company the bill. But Edwards believes reimbursement misses the point since home-grown produce has a value that can't be measured. She figures she could salvage the tomatoes and pumpkins with careful washing.
"But the green beans, I don't dare use those at all. They don't have a slick skin. They are fuzzy and things stick to it," Edwards said. "We also grow a lot of grapes. It's disgruntling."
Need help with the mess?
HollyFrontier is inviting those affected by this week's oil release to call a 24-hour hotline to report damage and get help cleaning up. The number is 801-560-5511. Company representatives have fanned out documenting damage and handing out coupons to nearby car washes.