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Federal officials are investigating an apparent spill from an aging Garfield County oil field that has contaminated a wash flowing into Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
The Bureau of Land Management's Utah state office, which administers the monument, sent a team to examine the leak Wednesday, a day after receiving photographs from hikers who discovered oil damage over a 4-mile stretch of Little Valley Wash. The spill, which may have occurred years ago, is the second time in as many years officials have looked into oil escaping the Upper Valley oil field, operated by Citation Oil and Gas Corp.
The hikers took several photographs on Saturday of the wash's sandstone walls, sandy beds and areas where water flows over rocks or small ledges, all covered with a black substance.
The oil appears to have been flushed down the wash months ago, but the photographs were the first time BLM was alerted to the problem, according to agency spokesman Megan Crandall. BLM's state office dispatched a petroleum engineer and other inspectors to the site on Wednesday.
"We are putting the people in place to get our hands around it. Until we have an idea of what we are dealing with, it's difficult to know what's going on," Crandall said. "We can't be on every acre all the time. It's important for folks to let us know."
But late Wednesday she learned from the field team that the oil could have been released years ago, possibly before Citation acquired the wells.
"It looks like this spill is very old," Crandall said. "With recent flooding it has turned all back up and moved around."
Even if the spill is years old, subsequent flooding could pick up the oil and move it, contaminating surface water and causing further environmental damage.
Whether it was old or recent, the spill should have been reported to BLM officials, but apparently was not.
Under contracts enabling companies to extract publicly owned minerals, they are obligated to report "undesirable events" as soon as practical, because of their potential to undermine public health and safety, oil production accountability and the environment.
Any spill into a park, recreation site, stream or other sensitive areas is considered major, requiring a full explanation under strict deadlines.
"The company has 24 hours, barring some pretty extenuating circumstances to provide a written report providing a broad range of data. That did not happen," Crandall said. "They are beholden to clean this up."
So far the agency does not know when the spill occurred, how much oil was involved or if any effort was made to clean up the mess. Messages left with Citation's Houston headquarters were not returned.
An analysis of the vegetation shown in the photographs suggests the oil hit the wash last fall, according to Crandall. The oil-tainted wash drains into Alvey Wash, which runs through Escalante and into the Escalante River. This meandering desert river flows east into the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell.
The Upper Valley oil field was established in 1964 on Dixie National Forest and BLM land about 10 miles west of Escalante.
The BLM portion of the field became part of the national monument once it was designated in 1996, and its wells continued producing oil as a pre-existing use. Many of the wells date to the 1960s and are connected by an old network of gathering lines.
The spill and another one discovered in 2012 raise concerns that Upper Valley's aging infrastructure is falling through the regulatory cracks.
Oil pipelines are generally regulated by either the state Department of Commerce or the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, depending on the product they carry and where it goes. But in response to the Tribune's queries, both agencies said they don't oversee the kind of pipelines Citation uses inside its oil field.
In May 2012, BLM officers discovered oil seeping from the ground near a Citation well and reported it to the state Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (DOGM), according to a brief incident summary filed in a spill database maintained by the Department of Environmental Quality.
Citation officials were notified and responded that the broken pipe could be associated with a water injection system that had already been repaired. DOGM inspectors checked it out and determined that the spill was indeed oil, not water.
The report gives no information on when or exactly where the spill occurred or how much oil was involved. It said "the oil is flowing an estimated distance of 2 miles toward an ephemeral wash and may be possibly affecting surface water."
DOGM spokesman Jim Springer said his agency has no jurisdiction over oil once it leaves the well, so the inspectors referred the matter to the Dixie National Forest. The Forest Service was not able to answer questions by deadline Wednesday about whether it investigated or required any action from Citation.