SALT LAKE CITY — Emergency workers believe they have stopped a 21,000-gallon oil leak from reaching the environmentally sensitive Great Salt Lake, one of the West’s most important inland water bodies for migratory birds that use it as a place to rest, eat and breed.
But the spill has taken a toll on wildlife at area creeks and ponds, coating about 300 birds with oil and possibly threatening an endangered fish.
The leak began Friday night when an underground Chevron Corp. pipeline in the mountains near the University of Utah broke. The breach sent oil into a creek that flows through neighborhoods, into a popular Salt Lake City park, and ultimately into the Jordan River, which flows into the Great Salt Lake.
The 10-inch pipeline was shut off Saturday morning, when workers at a nearby Veterans Administration building smelled oil and called the Salt Lake City fire department, which notified Chevron. The pipe carries crude oil from western Colorado to a refinery near the Salt Lake City International Airport.
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Jason Olsen, spokesman for the Salt Lake City Joint Information Center, said Sunday emergency workers believe they have contained the spill to the Jordan River.
But the spill still took its toll on birds at Red Butte Creek and at a large pond at Liberty Park, where visitors often feed birds from the shore and on rented paddle boats. About 300 birds were coated in oil and cleaned at Utah’s Hogle Zoo. Fewer than 10 have died, said Salt Lake City spokeswoman Lisa Harrison-Smith.
Most of the birds were Canada geese, although some ducks were also covered.
Harrison-Smith said the oil also flowed through several other riparian areas, which could threaten a rare Utah fish called a June sucker. It’s been listed as an endangered species since 1986.
Most of Liberty Park reopened Sunday. The pond remained closed, and Olsen urged those who live near affected waterways to stay away from them.
“Wherever the oil is, the smell is still fairly strong,” Olsen said.
The Salt Lake City Police Department told residents whose yards were polluted by the spill not to clean them up, but to file a claim with Chevron first. Chevron has said it is taking full responsibility for the spill and will pay for its cleanup.
Harrison-Smith said Chevron had investigators at the scene of the leak Sunday and that the Environmental Protection Agency had brought in a U.S. Coast Guard water recovery expert to assist with cleanup efforts.
She said city officials were hoping to receive a report on the spill from Chevron sometime Sunday evening.
U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, said he spoke by telephone Sunday with Becky Roberts, president of the company’s Chevron Pipe Line Co. unit.
Matheson said Roberts told him that until Chevron crews dig up the broken section of pipe, the company can’t be sure what caused the leak.
Matheson is urging full disclosure on the leak’s cause, and said his office will follow up to make sure Chevron follows EPA regulations.
“I would say they are responding very aggressively to it. I think they know there is a heightened concern among people in this country about oil spills,” Matheson said. “I think they understand it’s in their best interest to do everything they can to fix this as soon as possible.”