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Spills: Welcome to the Big Leagues, Rookie

By Kevin Okleberry

Coal ash spill sends piles of black ash into the Price River

Harmful algal bloom on Utah Lake

It was on a bright Monday morning, July 11, 2016, when I walked into the Multi-Agency State Office Building in west Salt Lake City to begin my new job as the Spills Coordinator for the Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ’s) Division of Water Quality (DWQ). I was a bit nervous, but also excited to begin this new phase of my career as an Environmental Health Scientist.

I had left my job as an Emergency Response Coordinator for Salt Lake County Health Department (SLCHD) the previous week. During my 19 ½ years with the Health Department, I had seen and done pretty much everything related to environmental health — from restaurant and pool inspections, to garbage and housing complaints, to meth labs and household hazardous wastes. For the last 13 years, I investigated illegal discharges, cleaned up chemical spills, and manned the Health Department’s after-hours Emergency Line. It was with no small amount of regret that I left my friends and the familiar surroundings at SLCHD’s Division of Environmental Health to come work at DEQ.

At my previous job, my duties rarely involved leaving Salt Lake County, but I was soon to discover that my duties encompassed the entire state, and the environmental incidents I investigated here were much, much bigger on average than the ones I dealt with in the County.

Coal ash spills and sends piles of black ash into the Price River

Coal ash spill in Price River

I had barely settled in to my cubicle when on July 13, 2016, a new assignment was thrust upon me from out of the blue. Blue-green, that is, as in the algae which had created a massive bloom on Utah Lake. The training for my new position was put on hold as I was called in to help with the DWQ’s response to the incident. I helped write web updates, organize meetings, provide expert advice on personal protective equipment (PPE), and most of all, answer questions from the public. And there were lots and lots of questions:  by my count I answered 143 phone calls the week after the algal bloom started. One co-worker quipped that instead of a “baptism by fire” it was a “baptism by algae”.

Eventually, the bloom dissipated and I started to learn the finer details of my job. Little did I know that things were just getting started.

On August 4, 2016, another major environmental incident occurred down in Central Utah. A once-in-a-century thunderstorm dumped over 2 inches of rain on a dry canyon above a coal ash landfill located upstream from the town of Helper, overwhelming the landfill’s drainage system and washing several thousand cubic yards of material into the catch basin and the Price River below. As this was one of my assigned duties, I took charge of the investigation, prepared the case file, and wrote the enforcement documents, all while learning DWQ’s procedures and processes on the fly.

DEQ scientist holds handful of mud pulled from the American Fork River after sediment spills into the waterway.

Tibble Fork sediment release

The busy summer wasn’t done yet. On August 23, 2016, DWQ received a report of a large sediment release from the Tibble Fork Dam construction site in American Fork Canyon, which turned the blue-ribbon trout habitat of the American Fork River into something that looked like chocolate milk and killed thousands of fish in the process. During the next two weeks, I drove up the canyon no less than eight times and learned more about the history and geology and resources of American Fork Canyon than I had ever imagined.  As with the coal-ash spill, I took charge of the investigation, coordinated the response with the different agencies involved, and prepared the Notice of Violation (NOV) which was issued on September 28, 2016. Since I will be overseeing the cleanup and recovery of the river, this case will likely be going for a long time.

So to sum it all up, it has been a busy three months at DEQ. Even so, it has been enjoyable and exciting, and I can’t help but wonder what is going to happen next.

Want to learn more about DWQ’s spill response to this summer’s algal blooms and spills? Visit our Algal Blooms page and Tibble Fork pages for more in-depth information.

24october2016-kevin-web-resizeI have a Bachelor’s degree in Microbiology from Weber State University, and a Bachelor’s degree in Public Health and a Master’s degree in Toxicology from Utah State University.  I have been a Licensed Environmental Health Scientist for over 19 years.  In addition to working for Salt Lake County and DEQ, I have taught chemistry courses at Salt Lake Community College for the past 6 years.  In my spare time, I enjoy the outdoors with my wife and children.