Fixed or Ruined? A Park is Rehabbed 

194 trees were chopped down and nearly 800K was spent to improve Miller Park after the spill.

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click to enlarge A map depicting locations of tree-removal sites
  • A map depicting locations of tree-removal sites

For its June 11, 2010, crude-oil spill into Red Butte Creek, Chevron Pipe Line Co. forked over $4.5 million in penalties, the largest chunk of which, $3 million, was doled out to cities and state agencies to perform an array of water quality and wetland improvements.

Seventeen different projects received funding, but the largest chunk of money, $767,612, went to Salt Lake City for restoration of Miller Park, a 9-acre bird refuge in the city's Yalecrest neighborhood.

After drifting through the backyard of Peter Hayes, who was an outspoken critic of Chevron and the government's response to the spill, and who died on Sept. 15, 2015 of a lung disease that many fear could be linked to exposure to fumes from the oil spill, the creek crosses 900 South and enters Miller Park.

While pinning human health problems to the spill is a tricky business, and the Salt Lake County and state departments of health have said there have been no spikes in cancer rates along the creek, the damage done to birds and other wildlife as a result of the spill was apparent.

Joe Cook, who owns a home along Miller Park and says he's suffered from cardiopulmonary issues since the spill, found a pile of dead bees outside of his three hives shortly after the 33,600 gallons of crude rushed through the creek.

"I suspect they died from the toxic effects from either the odors that were given off or from the direct contact with the oil, if they went to get water," Cook says. "They come home and they die and the others kick them out and you find a pile. It was the middle of the season. They were still busy."

Annie Payne, who also has a home that borders Miller Park, says that after the spill, she began to find dead birds in her yard. Among Payne's finds were a dead hawk in the creek, a songbird and a pair of baby birds on her porch. "They were everywhere, and when they reopened the park, they were in the creek," she says.

Creek restoration work began in July, 2015, and the park was reopened the first week of December. One of the more striking elements of the project, some neighbors say, was the removal of 194 trees from the densely wooded area.

According to a city website outlining the project, non-native and invasive trees were targeted for removal. Chopping down such trees, the website notes, has the potential to improve bird habitat and stream health.

Jim Webster, who owns a home along Miller Park, says some of the trees that were pulled out were two-feet in diameter. Prior to the whine of chainsaws last summer, Webster says much of the vibrant bird life that was present before the spill had finally rebounded.

"They took them out because they're not native, which is absurd because every tree down there is non native," Webster says.

According to the city's website, construction at Miller Park was supposed to begin in December, 2013, and trees were to be chopped down well outside of nesting season. But due to scheduling conflicts, this couldn't be achieved.

Lisa Long has lived along Miller Park for 21 years. When the trees started falling last summer, she says it was like a scene from the film The Birds. "They cut them during nesting season," Long says. "The birds were freaking out. It was so tragic, just so sad to see them do it during that time. The birds have not come back."

For some of those who live along Miller Park, the restoration project was just one more blow in a five-year span of creek living that has seen its fair share tragedy.

"It's been really heartbreaking every step of the way," Payne says.

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