A recent oil spill discovered in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has raised concerns about potential environmental contamination.
A hiker exploring Alvey Wash in early September came across pools of crude oil that appeared to originate from a leaking well about 17 miles upstream. The well is operated by Citation Oil & Gas Corporation, which initially estimated the spill at 360 barrels of oil and over 6,000 barrels of produced water. Citation later revised the amount of spilled oil down to around 163 barrels — still enough to fill about seven dump trucks.
This is far from the first spill attributed to Citation’s operations in the area. According to records, the company has had over 20 spills from its facilities near the Upper Valley over the past 35 years. Just last year, Citation was responsible for a 400 barrel oil spill from one of its pipelines.
Citation reported that the spill was likely caused by an overnight valve malfunction that went undetected for 14 hours before the facility was shut down. The oil and produced wastewater flowed 17 miles down Alvey Wash into the national monument. The company has installed barriers along the wash to try to contain the contamination and contracted cleanup crews, who have been granted permits to bring in heavy equipment.
There are concerns about the potential impacts of the produced wastewater, which can contain heavy metals, oil contaminants and high salinity. The Utah Division of Water Quality is investigating the spill and has requested testing on the wastewater.
The remote location of the spill site has made assessing the environmental damage challenging. Alvey Wash feeds into the Escalante River, a tributary of the Colorado River, but officials say there is no evidence so far that the contamination has reached the Escalante.
The spill response has been further complicated by the area’s preparations for an influx of tourists coming to view a rare solar eclipse on October 14th. Some of the contaminated areas are accessible from the town of Escalante. Officials are warning people to avoid the wash and keep pets away.
While the Upper Valley oil fields are not major producers compared to other regions in Utah, economic factors allow companies like Citation to continue operating low-output wells for years. But environmental advocates argue these marginal wells come with unacceptable risks, as spills keep occurring across decades of lax oversight. They say it’s past time to shut down these perpetually leaking operations.
Cover photo courtesy of: Doc Searls