Cleanup uncertain for Grand Staircase Escalante oil spill

James Holland, BLM Geologist, assesses recent erosion cut through the oil deposit.


An oil spill discovered a week ago continues to be examined in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on the Colorado Plateau. The spill covers miles of a desert wash, smearing the monument’s picturesque rocks with black stains. A mile-long six-inch-deep tar pool blights the unique wildland where some plants are now coated with black ooze.

The spill has been attributed to a well in an oil field known as Upper Valley at the border of Dixie National Forest. Citation Oil and Gas Corporation has since shut down the well in cooperation with investigations by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

The BLM has suggested that the spill may have occurred as long as 30 years ago and that the spill may have become more prominent as a result of a flash flood last fall.

BLM officials have said that they are reviewing the best options for cleanup and restoration. However, the agency states that such efforts could increase harm to the area, so it is possible that no or limited actions will be taken. This news has displeased locals - not to mention the millions who visit this region every year.

The spill is "a wake-up call," Carl Rountree, director of the National Landscape Conservation System, told the Salt Lake Tribune. "We have to recognize where there is old infrastructure in place we want to more carefully look at what can happen. We need to be more vigilant.”

The oil field is overseen by Dixie National Forest, who told the Salt Lake Tribune that Citation has recently had problems with unreported leaks from their aging infrastructure. "There is no excuse for this to go unreported or unnoticed until now,” says Phil Hanceford, Assistant Director of Agency Policy & Planning at The Wilderness Society. “This is why we support the Administration’s recent oil and gas reforms and increased inspection and enforcement capacity by the agencies as recently requested by the President.”

Photo: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Credit: flickr, Bob Wick/BLM California.

The tragedy is worsened by the fact that Upper Valley’s oil fields are at the headwaters of the Escalante River. The river that once carved Grand Staircase’s breathtaking canyons has recently received major restoration improvements for wildlife, whom are now threatened by the dangers of the spill’s potential expansion. The Escalante River eventually drains into the Colorado River at Lake Powell.

This circumstance raises significant questions about other wild lands that neighbor oil development. Over 40 national parks - as well as several wildlife refuges and national forests - have oil drilling already happening either inside or just outside their boundaries.

The Wilderness Society doesn’t need a wake-up call to see the importance of protecting America’s most cherished lands from this kind of negligence and unchecked harm. We’ve been working to protect priceless lands like those on the Colorado Plateau since before the oil spill in the Grand Staircase supposedly happened. Join us.

See also:

Hikers discover unreported oil spill in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument