U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employees first responded to reports of a leaking SW Energy oil well about 12 miles southeast of the town of Green River on Wednesday, May 21. By that afternoon, a Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining inspector and an emergency spill response contractor were also on the scene to help out.
The BLM reported that its employees worked with other regulators and SW Energy throughout that night to contain the leak and stop the flow, which averaged an estimated 80 to 100 barrels per hour.
Specialists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) arrived on Thursday, May 22 to assist in the cleanup and containment efforts at the Salt Wash Field site. The well was plugged at 1:20 p.m. that afternoon with heavy drilling mud that Fidelity Exploration and Production provided from its drilling site near Dead Horse Point.
BLM Utah State Director Juan Palma said in a May 22 statement that the agency took the necessary steps to collect and control pollutants from the well.
“We were able to catch this incident quickly to contain the leak and minimize the impacts to the surrounding environment,” Palma said.
However, runoff from intense thundershowers on the evening of May 23 mobilized oil and some surface contaminants in a normally dry wash between the well and the river, according to the BLM. The floodwaters overwhelmed protective berms and sent an undetermined amount of pollutants into the Green River, the BLM reported.
That incident leads Utah Rivers Council Executive Director Zach Frankel to believe that the BLM’s state office acted prematurely when it issued its May 22 press release.
“By definition, had it been contained, the Green River would not have been contaminated with oil,” he said.
Frankel believes that state and federal agencies had ample time to act before the May 23 storm hit the area, and he calls the incident a “huge embarrassment” for them.
“It’s very frustrating that drinking water for millions of people, along with critical habitat for endangered fish, was polluted when it could have been easily prevented,” he said.
Frankel said his group would like to see a thorough account that details how the “screw-up” occurred in the first place; Palma said in a statement that his agency is committed to finding out what happened.
“The BLM is taking this matter very seriously,” Palma said. “We are working cooperatively with SW Energy, the state and EPA to assess the extent of the spill and will work on assessing impacts to natural resources.”
While that assessment gets under way, cleanup work in the area is ongoing.
The day after the May 23 flood, crews built a second underflow structure that held stormwaters at bay, according to the BLM. The agency said it believes the absorbent materials that crews placed in the area captured additional pollutants before they could reach the river.
As gray skies gave way to sunshine, crews also began to remove oil from the well pad on May 26; meanwhile, contaminated soil is being removed from a nearby retention pond. Any fluids from the area have been or will be moved to a state-approved disposal facility at Danish Flats in Grand County, according to the BLM.
The agency will continue to provide updates on the incident once damage assessments are complete and corrective action plans are prepared and implemented, the BLM reported.
It’s unclear why SW Energy wasn’t equipped to plug the well on its own.
Heavy drilling mud, which keeps the pressure on formations during the drilling process, is a standard product at Fidelity Exploration and Production’s sites, according to company spokesman Tim Rasmussen.
Rasmussen said his company immediately sent two truckloads of drilling mud to the SW Energy site after Fidelity was contacted for help.
“That stuff is incredible. It’s heavier than water, and gravity allows it to go into the hole at a good rate,” he said. “It’s exactly what they needed.”
Rasmussen estimates that six to eight Fidelity employees in locations ranging from Moab to Denver helped out in some way, and he believes others in their position would do the same.
“We need to cooperate with each other,” Rasmussen said. “Other companies up there would help us, and we would help them.”
For the latest BLM updates on the Salt Wash Field spill, go to: www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/moab/SaltWashSpill.html.