Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Salt Lake City Utilities Director Steps Down

Bryan Jones
Flickr Creative Commons
Liberty Park's pond became a catchbasin for oil leaked from a crude oil pipeline in Salt Lake City's foothills after Jeff Niermeyer, Salt Lake City's former utilities director, plugged the outflow to protect the Jordan River and the Great Salt Lake.

Delivering drinking water to 350,000 customers, catching stormwater, moving wastewater and keeping the streetlights on aren’t exactly action-hero tasks.  But Jeff Niermeyer prevented a local environmental disaster from becoming an international one nearly six years ago. That’s when thick crude oil poured from a Chevron pipeline, down Red Butte Creek and through the heart of the city into Liberty Park.

Niermeyer is probably the most important environmental official in Utah you’ve never heard of. He stepped down this month as director of Salt Lake City’s Public Utilities Department.

His quick thinking once he learned of the spill, and his knowledge of the city, made it possible to prevent the petroleum from reaching the Great Salt Lake wetlands.

“We would be able to take the flow that was going down Red Butte Creek and route it into Liberty Lake, which would then act as a trap for all of that oil.”

The spill challenged Niermeyer to plan for keeping utilities running during future disasters, like an earthquake.  Over nearly 25 years in the public utilities department, Niermeyer’s also gained an appreciation for preserving the healthy mountains and streams that protect the valley’s precious water supply.

“I think we can’t sit back and rest on what we have today,” he says, “because, as they say in the stock market, yesterday’s returns are no indication of the future. And we’re going to have some serious challenges in the future.”

Niermeyer is leaving the leadership role he’s held for nine years as a new mayor takes office.

Newly-elected Mayor Jackie Biskupski hasn’t announced a new utilities director.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.