Environmental Catastrophe Averted on Utah’s Provo River

Written by: Spencer Durrant and Brian Wimmer

Oil pools above the Provo River, as workers race against time to stop the spill.
Photos courtesy Scott Hart

Editor’s note: Every fly fisher’s nightmare is some sort of spill in his home water. One’s thoughts go immediately to dark places, in which fish die and habitat is destroyed. But here’s a good reminder that such things are not inevitable, and the story stresses the importance of the work that first-responders do on the scene to protect the river.

Thanks to quick action taken by first responders, a major catastrophe was averted on Utah’s Provo River.

“If there’s a medal to be given out [for the quick containment of this incident] it’s to the fast action of the first-responders on scene,” said Joyel Dhieux of the EPA Emergency Response Unit.

On November 28th, around 10 a.m., a semi hauling two oil tankers traveling on Highway 189 in Utah’s Provo Canyon crashed in slick conditions. The crash closed the canyon, a major highway in the heavily populated Wasatch Front area of Utah, for eight hours, while state agencies worked on cleanup. Highway 189 runs adjacent to the Provo River, a Blue Ribbon fishery, for the length of Provo Canyon. One of the oil tankers ruptured, spilling approximately 4,000 gallons of crude oil onto the highway. Approximately 1,000 gallons ended up flowing into the Provo River.

The first-responders were the North Fork Fire Department, headed by Fire Chief Scott Hart. Hart is also a member of the board of directors for the newly minted Alpine Anglers, a Utah County-based chapter of Trout Unlimited. They were on the scene at 10:19 a.m., just minutes after the crash and spill occurred. The Utah Highway Patrol (UHP) was also on the scene within minutes, as well as the Utah Department of Traffic (UDOT). A UDOT front-end loader arrived shortly after, dumping five loads of sand onto the road in an effort to keep as little oil as possible from leaking into the river. Also arriving on scene was Tait Larson, a member of the Utah Division of Natural Resources (UDNR).

Oil continues to spill from the overturned tanker.

Within minutes of the spill happening, the CUWP (Central Utah Water Project) shut off the culinary intakes that provide water from the Provo for use by over one million residents in Utah and Salt Lake Counties. Booms were also inserted into the river above the Olmstead Diversion Dam (where water is diverted for culinary treatment) before the oil could reach the diversion dam and potentially leak in Utah and Salt Lake County’s culinary water supply.

By 11:40, relevant state agencies (The Utah Department of Health and Department of Environmental Quality) were contacted, according to Tait Larson. By 12:30, the ruptured tanker was turned upright, stopping the spillage of the oil.

The Environmental Protection Agency, represented by Paul Peronaed and Joyel Dhieux of the EPA Emergency Response Unit, also arrived shortly after the incident occurred to lend their expertise to help contain the situation.

A short time after the spill was contained, the CUWP did a sampling of culinary water and found zero evidence of contamination. After hearing that great news, the real work began to get the spilled oil out of the Provo River. Thankfully, a stroke of luck occurred that day. Since the spill happened on such a frigid day, the cold temperatures in the air and water congealed the crude oil, making it easier than anyone had hoped for to clean up.

The truck was finally turned upright, which stopped the spill and allowed workers to focus on the river.

“It was almost like harpooning for oil. The crude [oil] took on a waxy, rubbery texture that was easy to collect,” Dhieux said.

As of December 3, approximately 95% of the spilled oil had been removed from the river. According to Dhieux, the rest of the spill (approximately 50 gallons) will be left to decompose.

“At some point the removal process can be more harmful to the habitat than the small amounts that might go unrecovered,” She said. The remaining oil is not expected to have a negative effect on the river, or surrounding environment.

The news gets even better.

“As of yet, there have been no sightings of affected or dead fish,” Mike Slater, DNR Regional Aquatic Program Manager, said.

While accidents like this are unavoidable, Utahns are lucky to have such professional first responders who were able to contain what could have turned into a major catastrophe for a river that’s already facing significant environmental challenges. Some of the challenges include overuse by rafting companies, litter, and a trout population that is far above what the river will be able to support in the long-term. An oil spill was the last thing the river needed.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer based out of Utah. He writes a monthly column for the Standard-Examiner, and is a regular contributor to KSL.com and Hatch Magazine. He’s also the Vice President of the Alpine Anglers, a chapter of Trout Unlimited. You can connect with him on Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.

Brian Wimmer is the Ambassador of Fly Fishing for Sundance Mountain Resort and President of the Alpine Anglers of Trout Unlimited.

5 thoughts on “Environmental Catastrophe Averted on Utah’s Provo River”

  1. Pingback: Tippets: GM Salmon Petition, Yellowstone Lake Trout Milestone, EIC on Puget Sound Steelhead, Update on Provo River Oil Spill, Protection for Westslope Cutthroat | MidCurrent
  2. No. They did not clean the oil up. My son went to his favorite spot along Provo River yesterday. He walked onto some ice on the River bank. The warmer temperatures recently caused the ice to break. His boots emerged into black tar gunk, surely oil from the spill, for he was located down river from the spill. I am upset that this environmental disaster got little media and was swept under the rug. And what about the semi-driver? A replier above is concerned if he was ok. I heard from the news that he was…but did he get a ticket for this?!! Was his trucking company held responsible for the damage to the environment. Why do I think NOT? He lost control when he passed into the next lane. I see truckers doing this all the time, speeding. The roads were super icy that day. He should have been driving more carefully. Utah County is so backwards when it comes to caring for the environment. No coverage of this at all, except another run-of-the-mill accident report.

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