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Spills Response: Because Oil and Water Shouldn’t Mix

By Walt Baker

The one-year anniversary of the Willard Bay diesel spill last month was a sobering reminder of the environmental damage our waterways suffer when oil or chemicals spill into our lakes and streams. While the “hero beavers” did their part to help save the day last year, the folks in our division were the boots-on-the-ground that ensured that the cleanup was done properly.

We often get questions about our role in a spill cleanup, and the answer is

Alex Anderson
Alex Anderson, Utah Division of Water Quality scientist, removing a “pom-pom” from a Willard Bay monitoring location to check for sheen.
Photo Credit: Stacee Adams

“it depends.” We take the lead if the spill is large and involves one or more of the following contaminants or consequences:

  • Crude or refined oil
  • Potential for major or significant damage to water quality
  • Impacts to a sensitive or high priority area

Sometimes the local health department or another state or federal agency takes responsibility for the spill cleanup and reports back to us when it’s completed.

Our division is part of the command-and-control team that handles spills after the first responders—generally the local fire department and other emergency personnel—arrive on the scene and begin containment measures. Our job is to ensure that the cleanup is done correctly and safeguards human health and the environment. We do this by:

  • Certifying that qualified personnel record conditions at the spill site and take water and soils samples using proper procedures
  • Examining sampling results to assess the ecological and human health risk
  • Updating our records as new information comes in
  • Developing a sampling analysis plan if we believe more sampling should be done
  • Determining if further water quality monitoring is needed
  • Working with those responsible for the spill on a Corrective Action Plan to clean up the pollution and restore water quality and the aquatic ecosystem
  • Ensuring that the cleanup meets state criteria and standards

We may issue citations or Notices of Violation if the spill violates state regulations that prohibit pollution discharges into state waters.

While we do a good job responding to spills, we want to do even better. That’s why we have spent the past six months working on a Spills Kaizen to determine the most effective and efficient way to respond to spills and better coordinate our efforts with other agencies. The Kaizen study has helped us pinpoint the areas where we can improve our process and streamline our spills response.

Spill prevention is always the best strategy, but when spills happen, a coordinated response is critical to minimizing the damage and mitigating the effects. To learn more about oil spills and how they are cleaned up, check out the EPA’s brochure on oil spills and oil spill response.
Walt Baker
Walt and his wife, Celia, grab their shovels for the Jordan River Cleanup Day

I graduated with a B.S. Degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Utah State University and worked for a consulting engineering firm before joining the Division of Water Quality in 1984. I was appointed Division Director and Executive Secretary of the Water Quality Board in May 2004 and am a licensed professional engineer in Utah.


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