Cleanup Effort Underway after Pipeline Break Spills Crude Oil into San Juan River

Boom across the San Juan River at the Sand Island Boat Ramp near Bluff, Utah.

By Zak Podmore

Published: 3/3/19
Updated: 3/12/19

Sometime around the evening of February 28, a six-inch diameter transfer line northwest of Montezuma Creek began leaking crude oil and produced water into Bucket Wash. The wash, which is usually dry, was flowing with snowmelt, and oil traveled approximately three miles before spilling into the San Juan River.

The transfer line is owned by Elk Petroleum, an Australian company with extensive operations in the Aneth Oil Filed in southeast Utah. Four Corners Business Unit Manager Jeff Roedell said Saturday that Elk Petroleum estimates several barrels of oil potentially leaked before the line could be turned off. The estimated spill total was later upped to 196 barrels of oil.

Craig Giggleman, on-scene coordinator with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), traveled from Denver to Bluff on the night of March 1, and an EPA crew is monitoring cleanup efforts that are being led by Elk Petroleum.

Giggleman described an “aggressive effort” to “actively remediate the spill site,” which includes pumping from pools in Bucket Wash as well as a hard boom placed across the San Juan River at the Sand Island Boat Ramp near Bluff.

Giggleman said Elk Petroleum is coordinating with regions 8 and 9 of the EPA, as well as the San Juan County Health Department, the Navajo Nation, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Sand Island is sixteen miles below the confluence with Bucket Wash, and on Saturday morning an oil sheen and odor were discernible on the river. The boom was still in place as of Sunday morning.


“This is an unfortunate circumstance,” Roedell said, “but we take these things seriously. We responded immediately and our highest priority is to make sure it’s taken care of and people and the environment are protected.”

The Aneth Oil Field was discovered in 1956 and is the largest oil field in the Paradox Basin. According to the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, the field has produced 448 million barrels of oil since the late 1950s. The transfer line that began leaking last week is a feeder for the Running Horse Oil Pipeline, which transports oil from Aneth to a refinery in Gallup, New Mexico.

According to Elk Petroleum’s website, an expansion of operations in the oil field is underway that would increase the company’s production in southeast Utah by 45 percent between 2017 and 2019.

Several spills have been reported in the San Juan River in recent years, including the Gold King Mine Spill which sent 3 million gallons of mine drainage down the Animas River and into the San Juan in 2015.

The largest oil pipeline breach in the region took place in 1972 when 285,000 gallons of oil produced from the Aneth field spilled, contaminating the lower San Juan River corridor and Lake Powell.

The Bureau of Land Management is scheduled to offer new oil and gas leases on 90,000 acres of land in southeast Utah between March 2018 and March 2019.

— This article was updated with the latest estimate for the size of the spill.

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