Hikers discover unreported oil spill in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

View of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

Bob Wick, BLM California

Oil from an aging Garfield County oil field has contaminated a wash flowing into Utah’s popular Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Hikers traversing Little Valley Wash discovered the 4-mile wide spill on March 22. The group photographed oil-covered sandstone walls, sandy beds and small waterways, and delivered the images to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) who has sent a team to investigate the spill.

The Wilderness Society’s Assistant Director of Policy and Planning, Phil Hanceford, believes this spill, which went unreported for some time, illustrates both the carelessness of the responsible company, and the need for the BLM to increase its limited monitoring and enforcement capacity.

The oil appears to have been flushed down the wash months ago, but the recent photographs were the first time the BLM was alerted to the problem. This is the second time that officials have looked into oil escaping the Upper Valley oil field, which is operated by Citation Oil and Gas Corp.

“The news that an unreported oil spill has been contaminating the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a sure sign that stronger BLM oversight is needed for oil and gas drillers operating on public lands,” Hanceford said.

By law, companies who hold contracts to extract publicly owned minerals are obligated to report "undesirable events" as soon as possible, because of their potential to jeopardize public health and safety, and the environment. However, this recent spill strongly suggests that self-regulation from oil and gas companies is not enough to protect America’s wildlands from accidents that will inevitably occur as a result of drilling.

The Golden Cathedral, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Photo: John Fowler, Flickr

“Recognizing this important and longstanding need, the Obama Administration has requested additional funding for the BLM’s oil and gas inspection and enforcement program, which is a good step towards helping to avoid such problems in the future. 

“We need higher standards of protection for public lands and waters. New and creative ways of getting oil and gas out of the ground also bring new and creative challenges to keeping lands and water pollution-free. We should hold the oil and gas industry to the highest standard for extracting resources from our public lands and keep drilling away from sensitive areas,” suggests Hanceford.

The spill and another one discovered in 2012 raise concerns that Upper Valley’s aging infrastructure is falling through the regulatory cracks.

“The BLM has already started reforms to make drilling safer,” Hanceford adds. “It should continue these reforms, expand implementation of Master Leasing Plans to guide oil and gas development to appropriate places and away from sensitive areas, and finalize strong standards for hydraulic fracturing.”

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is part of the Colorado Plateau, a uniquely rugged area that covers 100 million acres across the corners of Southeast Utah, Northern Arizona, Southwest Colorado and Northwest New Mexico.  

More than 40 million people visit the Colorado Plateau every year to see places like the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde and Grand Staircase-Escalante. You can learn more about our work to protect the Colorado Plateau here.