Online tools inform Utah property owners of environmental disaster risks

Tuesday , December 26, 2017 - 5:00 AM

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

For property owners, few things are as devastating as an environmental disaster.

Last month’s Spring Creek Drive landslide left Becky Meehan feeling uprooted, as a bluff gave way and destroyed a property that’s been in her family for generations.

“My ancestors owned all this land. This land has been in my family for years and years and years,” she said. “My father ... he spent 35 years just getting this manicured. It was his pride and joy.”

Natural hazards, like landslides or rockfall, and human-caused environmental ones, like spills and chemical releases, often impact unsuspecting people who invest time and money into their properties.

Nowadays, various online tools can offer insight on the potential environmental risks of a property in Utah. No tool is perfect in predicting calamity, but knowledge can at least inform prospective buyers and empower property owners to prepare for possible danger.

TOOLS FOR RESEARCHING NATURAL HAZARDS

No matter the location, most Utah properties are at risk for some kind of natural hazard. Valleys are more prone to flooding and settling, while the benches are prone to landslides and rockfall. The entire Wasatch Front is subject to earthquake danger. 

“Who knows what the future will hold?” said Ben Erickson, a geologist with the Utah Geological Survey Hazards Program. “It all depends on what you’re willing to risk.”

When Erickson considers buying a home, he personally looks at state-issued geological maps and searches for hazard clues. UGS offers an interactive map with these resources.

A property owner can search an address and learn more about the types of soils on the property and mapped hazards in the area, then download full-resolution maps and studies.

In fact, the Riverdale bluff that slid in November is covered in symbols indicating landslide potential, according to the state’s geologic map of the Ogden area.

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The curved lines with smaller parallel lines indicate landslide scarps.

Many benches along the Wasatch Front near rivers are prone to these slides because of deposits from ancient Lake Bonneville. 

“Weber Canyon was dumping sediments into the lake, so this is a big delta,” said Gregg Beukelman, with the UGS Hazards Program, of the Riverdale slide area. “So by the time stuff got from the mouth of the Weber River to here, it’s fine-grain, clay, silt and sandy deposits. That’s not geologically very strong or stable material.”

Bluffs near Ogden Canyon were formed by the same processes and subject to the same landslide hazards.

“It’s hard for a homeowner, they’re not geologically savvy enough,” said Greg McDonald, a project geologist with UGS. “It should be more (up to) the muncipalities issuing building permits to require geolgic hazard studies. I think Weber County is getting more up to speed.”

Property owners and buyers can contact the building and planning departments in their city or county to see if geological surveys were done before land was developed. Some of these studies are available on the UGS’s online GeoData database, searchable by city and county.

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When reviewing geotechnical reports, Erickson said to look for the section on hazards, although each report will vary in the amount of detail provided. 

When all else fails, the public can contact UGS geologists for guidance.

“We are available to answer questions and provide assistance with the resources I mentioned, free of charge,” Erickson said in an email. “If a homeowner has larger concerns about an area, a geotechnical investigation can be performed by a licensed geologist or firm to help identify or mitigate a geologic hazard.”

UGS has a website dedicated to educating homeowners on geological hazards. Visit geology.utah.gov/hazards for more information. For other questions on geologic risks, contact the Utah Geological Survey at 801-537-3300.

RESEARCHING HUMAN-CAUSED ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARDS

Property stress isn’t always caused by nature — sometimes it can trickle down from human activities in the neighborhood. The Salt Lake Valley, for example, was once home to a robust mining industry which left fallout and tailings in places later developed into residential lots.

Even smaller businesses, like dry cleaners, auto shops and gas stations, can have leaks that impact neighborhoods. 

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“We only find out about those when someone detects it through sampling or brings it to our attention,” said Brent Everett, director of the Utah Division of Environmental Response and Remediation. 

To lessen environmental anxieties, Everett recommends studying the area’s history. 

“If it was farmland, there’s probably not much to worry about,” he said. “If it was an old manufacturing facility they’ve torn down, you might want to ask, ‘What did they do there? Was there an environmental cleanup overseen by a federal or state agency?’”

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has its own online interactive map that’s useful for researching past and present environmental cleanups and sites of concern. 

While the DEQ map contains a staggering number of research options, most property researchers will want to select the “Environmental Response and Remediation” query layer. From there, Everett suggests selecting the “Brownsfields,” “CERCLA,” “Environmental Incidents,” “Underground Storage Tanks” and “Voluntary Cleanup Program” options.

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While those options are full of environmental regulatory jargon, they’re enough to get a search started. From there, search a street address or city for a list of sites on the DEQ’s radar.

“Click on certain fields, see what it brings up, if you don’t know what it means, call someone at DEQ,” Everett said.

Most sites on the map have scanned documents detailing cleanup activities and site inspections under the “links” option that appears after clicking a site.

One major limitation of the interactive maps is that it shows each environmental site as a small dot — but keep in mind, the impacts from a release can extend to neighboring properties.

They can even impact sites miles away, like the Hill Air Force Base groundwater plume. With this in mind, it’s useful to zoom out from a specific property and explore the surrounding area.

Regulatory agencies like DEQ do their best to educate the public on environmental hazards, but they can’t predict them all.

“We have tools that help us identify probabilities, likelihoods, proximities (of hazards) to certain types of properties,” Everett said. “But let’s say someone was using their backyard for clandestine drug manufacturing or dumped a bunch of chemicals — who can foresee that?”

For questions about environmental incidents, regulated sites and facilities, contact the Division of Environmental Response and Remediation at 801 536-4100.

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or [email protected] Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen

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