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Blue Stakes prez comments on Chevron oil spill

by Jesse Fruhwirth
- Posted // 2010-06-15 -

The president of Blue Stakes Utah, the "call before you dig" organization, says its records are sealed from the public regarding communications between Rocky Mountain Power and Chevron concerning the fence post suspected of causing the Salt Lake City oil spill.

Blue Stakes is a private non-profit organization created by and for utilities, said president Gary Hansen. As such, he can only release records by member request or with a subpoena.

photo by Dan Gorder

"Certainly we'll cooperate, but at the same time, we've also agreed to operators who fund the center that we will not provide information to third-parties without their approval," Hansen said.

The issue concerns a fence that Rocky Mountain Power says was installed in the early 1980s. One of those posts was either touching or within inches of the Chevron's pipeline, according to the Salt Lake City Fire Department. Due to charring on the pipe, investigators believe the fence post was somehow electrified and basically melted a quarter-size hole in the pipeline, which then spewed an estimated 33,000 gallons (correction 6/15/10 3 p.m.: this post originally used the incorrect units) of crude oil into Red Butte creek about 30 feet away. Precisely how the fence post was electrified--either lightning, the nearby transmission line, or something else--is still subject to investigation. Investigators say there is no evidence that suggests either sabotage or terrorism.

A Chevron representative commented briefly on the pipeline/fence post issue last night.

Chevron and Rocky Mountain Power are among 512 member utilities of Blue Stakes Utah. Hansen would not say when Chevron joined, but said Rocky Mountain was a founding member in 1974.

Hansen said the role of his organization is limited. He said state statute requires that "excavators"--which is basically anyone moving soil, including to install a fence post--must "call before they dig" (just dial 811). Blue Stakes then checks a database for utilities that have infrastructure in the area, alerts the operators of a pending dig who then come out to stake the location of the lines. Excavators are expected to use hand tools within 24 inches of any stakes line.

Whether 7-foot metal fence posts--which could act as lightning rods--are legally allowed to be placed either adjacent or within a few inches of a crude oil pipeline is beyond the purview of Blue Stakes, Hansen said.

"But certainly there may be some ordinances or guidelines from the utility," Hansen said. "As you get a building permit for different things, I'm sure there are some restrictions of how close."

The investigation continues into the cause of the spill now blamed for the deaths of at least 16 birds and counting (300 have been oiled and rescued), as well as fish. Fox13 is reporting today that oil has been detected in the ecologically sensitive Farmington Bay wetlands nature preserve of Great Salt Lake.

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Posted // June 16,2010 at 00:39

I'm a young college student who was lucky enough to grow up in all the beauty that Salt Lake City has to offer and I'm honestly heartbroken that something this devastating has happened in my own backyard (not to mention the travesty that is the gulf right now). I'm tired of pointing fingers and questioning who, what, where, when, why and how; all I want to know at this point is one thing: What can I do to help? If anyone knows a way to volunteer, whether it be at the Zoo helping clean affected animals or up to my knees in oil at Liberty Park, I'd love to know about it. Thank you.


Posted // June 16,2010 at 17:58 - Hayduke, Thanks for looking into that and letting me know what the word is. I spent back-to-back summers as a kid at the aviary (thank god it's not damaged) as well as liberty park and I just wish there was something hands-on that I could do. I refuse to believe that I need to be certified to scrub some oil off a rock, but I suppose in this day and age issues of insurance and liability come before the willingness of helping hearts and hands. Thanks again, I'll pass along any news I here of volunteer opportunities as well.


Posted // June 16,2010 at 08:58 - Hey Walker, Just called SLC park services and was informed that, while volunteers would be greatly appreciated, they are not currently involved in the clean-up and won't be in the future. I was told that the hazards are minimal but the clean-up will be handled by trained contractors, etc. I also looked into helping at the Aviary and was told that the spill was contained before reaching that jewel. The waterways are connected, via three creeks running from the hills, but park services was able to shut off the valves leading to the aviary before the oil got there. Apparently there were a few birds that moved from the aviary to the spill and back again (probably ducks), bringing oil with them, but that was it.


Posted // June 16,2010 at 08:25 - Pointing fingers will not clean up this mess. That much is certain. Of course, there's no need to point fingers; we know who made the mess already. It's good of you to want to help, kid, but I'm pretty sure the hazmat crew in this instance comprises contractors and various professionals. At this point, they're just sucking what contaminants they can from the pond in the park. Not sure that they're doing much to collect crude downstream. Not sure they really can. But hey, if you learn differently and find that volunteers are needed, do let us know here. I'll join you.


Posted // June 15,2010 at 12:27

Oh, so now it's a misplaced fence post that's to blame instead of a power outage.

Could somebody please explain how an electrified fence post hot enough to breach a metal pipe (or a fence post that's been electrified via lightening strike) can burn a hole through that pipe without igniting the crude (and the gasses) contained within?


Posted // June 16,2010 at 14:33 - Your persistence is certainly appreciated, Jesse.


Posted // June 16,2010 at 12:51 - 'apreciate ya as always, 'duke. I'll direct your prudent skepticism at the appropriate individuals when the opportunities arise. For now, however, I keep hitting the "it's under investigation" brick wall--doesn't matter who I talk to. We'll all wait together for more conclusive answers.


Posted // June 15,2010 at 15:21 - Hi Jesse, I looked up crude and found that its flash point, the point at which the liquid turns to flammable vapor, is 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Seems to me that something hot enough to burn through this pipe, especially if it was lightening, could easily drive the liquid to that temperature within the line. Plus, I'd wager that there are already flammable gasses present in the pipe - at least ignitable traces. I also considered that this pipe is several feet underground, which certainly is not conducive to sustaining a fire, but should not impede an explosion. An explosion of that nature should be powerful enough to blow soil away from the blast and introduce oxygen. I also learned that oil pipes are constructed of either steel or plastic. If this line was steel, that was a seriously hot fence post. If it was plastic, that just adds another easily flammable component to potentially burn. My point is, I think they're full of crap at Chevron (and RMP), just like at BP, and that this is the latest lame excuse in what will probably be number two of many more to come. I'd sure appreciate hearing anything you find out. I just wish that finding out the truth about what actually happened would make a difference and help remedy the situation. We both know it won't, unfortunately.


Posted // June 15,2010 at 13:23 - Additionally, Chevron said last night that there is no realistic way of moving the pipeline away from Red Butte or any other sensitive areas, nor are they able to move their refinery operations in North Salt Lake (which actually has a stellar safety record compared to its four peers in refinery row). Only residents, no officials that I'm aware of, have called for such dramatic remediation.


Posted // June 15,2010 at 13:19 - That's a good question, and I'll be sure to ask it of someone smarter than myself. I have no expertise on this, but it's my understanding that it's the fumes from flammable liquids, not usually the liquid itself, that is ignitable. IDK if that's the case for crude oil. This was three feet underground, so maybe the soil dampened/slowed the release of gasses? IDK.


Posted // June 15,2010 at 12:20

"Whether 7-foot metal fence posts--which could act as lightning rods--are legally allowed to be placed either adjacent or within a few inches of a crude oil pipeline is beyond the purview of Blue Stakes, Hansen said."

Apparently there weren't any concerns or ordinances enforced about placing a 10" crude oil pipeline "adjacent" (30 feet) Red Butte Creek. Seems silly to be concerned about how close a fence post was to the pipeline when the pipeline was next door to such a high-profile waterway.


Posted // June 15,2010 at 12:28 - Indeed, Mamba, indeed. But you're using logic here. Don't expect the same from Chevron or RMP.