PROVO, Utah – Ted Buehler bought his two-story, 130-year-old brick farm home in Provo’s historic Maeser neighborhood back in 2005. He realized the block was a little rough around the edges.
Just across Buehler’s backyard fence is Christensen Oil, a bulk petroleum distributing company. But residents in the area said the facility wasn’t allowed to expand, Buehler recalled, and assured him that the fire marshal regularly inspected the site.
“I didn’t really like them being there,” Buehler said, “but since they couldn’t expand, in theory, they shouldn’t be able to get any worse than they already are.”
Then Christensen Oil added a shed to store more oil. The company’s office building got bigger. They added another large tank. The yard began to fill with dozens of 275-gallon totes full of oil and other chemicals, all stored on bare ground.
When the company made plans to add at least 14 more 5,200-gallon oil tanks last year, Buehler and some other Provo residents decided they’d had enough.
“They’re trying to expand in an area where they shouldn’t be in the first place,” said Lynne Dixon, an attorney who has experience working with the petroleum industry. “I don’t understand why Christensen is so tied to wanting to stay at this location when other industries are trying to create buffer zones.”
Neighbors don’t necessarily want Christensen Oil to move, but they worry the operation isn’t safe for a residential area. They say fuel tanker trucks park too close to property lines. They’ve seen hazardous materials that aren’t stored responsibly. They claim gates aren’t properly locked at night so anyone can wander in.
“I recognize that I live in an industrial area. I like that my house rattles when the train goes by. It’s not the noise and industry that bothers me, it’s the actual safety risk,” said Rachel Favero, who has been a tenant in Buehler’s farmhouse for the last three years. “Christensen Oil themselves doesn’t have an interest in expanding and operating according to the highest industry practices and the city doesn’t seem interested in enforcing those either. It’s come down to neighbors walking around and saying, ‘This doesn’t look right.’”
An oil company as neighbor
Representatives with Christensen Oil declined to provide comment for this story. Brandon Christensen, one of the family members who works at the facility, told the Provo City Council in June that the company wanted to add more large oil tanks to reduce hazards from temporary storage at the site.
“This company values the safety of our neighbors and the safety of our employees,” he said.
City officials say that while it’s not ideal to have a wholesale oil and fuel distributor in the middle of a residential neighborhood, Christensen Oil operates a shipshape business.
“Bulk oil like that is not very flammable, so it’s not very dangerous,” said Provo Community Development Director Gary McGinn. “It has the same flashpoint as paper. Having a library next door would be about as dangerous as having that bulk oil.”
Utah Oil Company (UTOCO) began operating on the site in the 1930s or 1940s. In 1973, UTOCO employee Owen Christensen bought the facility and continued the bulk oil business. Over the decades, planning and zoning rules changed to keep industrial areas away from homes. But because Christensen Oil kept operating, it legally remained in the Maeser neighborhood as a nonconforming use.
“The reality is, as a city we’d love to see Christensen not be so close to the neighborhood,” McGinn said. “Is it in the city budget to move Christensen Oil? No, it is not.”
Although product moves in and out of Christensen Oil on a daily basis, the property can currently store 352,000 gallons in its large, permanent aboveground tanks, according to Provo Fire and Rescue. The company uses those tanks to store bulk oil, gasoline and diesel fuel, according to city information, which it distributes to car repair shops, schools, farms and industrial companies. Records from the Department of Environmental Quality show the property has two underground gasoline tanks and an underground kerosene tank as well.
Christensen has proposed adding nearly 73,000 gallons of additional oil tank storage and at least two new fuel tanks.
“I can’t open my windows on any given day without fumes coming into my home,” Favero said.
Risks and rights
The neighbors said fumes could also mean fire danger. They worry Christensen Oil isn’t following the latest fire code. Residents have asked the fire department to require fuel trucks to park at least 25 feet away from property lines, for example, and they’ve questioned whether oil tanks are too close to their fences. Last month, Fire Marshal Lynn Schofield told FOX 13 he relies on his personal experience when making those calls.
“I don’t take a tape measure with me when I inspect any building, and the reason is because my 29 years of knowledge and experience as a firefighter … help me understand what is a risk and what is not a risk,” Schofield told the news station.
In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Schofield said facilities only need to be held to the fire codes used the year they were constructed, unless there’s a change in use.
“Each property owner has rights,” he said. “Some of those adjacent homes were built in the 1800s. We certainly have not required them to bring things up to the current code.”
Schofield added that the facility has not had a major incident or violation in his time working for the city. He acknowledged, however, it could use some improvements.
Of particular concern are the dozens of portable totes stacked throughout the Christensen Oil property, many outside, on soil, with nothing to contain a spill.
“We are working with them to get that brought into best practices. But it’s going to take a year, maybe two years to complete,” Schofield said.
In July, an anonymous person reported staining and pooling oil around the totes to state regulators. A DEQ inspector observed soil stains during a site visit a few weeks later, which Christensen Oil reportedly cleaned. A DEQ spokesperson said the department has no further concerns about the company.
Schofield said Christensen Oil has also repeatedly complied with the fire department’s requests, mostly for minor things like moving wooden pallets or adding extra protection to fuel pipes.
“They’ve moved trucks off the property line. It’s not perfect, but it is better,” he said. “They’ve run a safe operation for over 60 years. We’re continuing to work with them to make it a safer operation.”
But Maeser residents said the city has consistently been lax about enforcement at Christensen Oil. They pointed to a 1991 agreement signed by Todd Christensen that prohibited “flammable” and “combustible” material storage in the company’s north warehouse. Now, a site plan shows the facility intends to use the building for lube oil storage.
In an email, McGinn said the intent of the 1991 contract was to focus on flammable fuel, not oil.
“It is also clear that immediately after that agreement was signed, Christensen Oil began storing lubricating oil (a combustible material) in the north warehouse with the city’s knowledge,” McGinn said in an email. “Oil has been stored there continuously since then. Storage of oil in the north warehouse did not violate fire or building codes at that time nor does it now.”
The residents also took issue with a pole tent Christensen Oil constructed sometime between 2006 and 2009, aerial photos show, which it later clad with sheet metal. The company only obtained a building permit for the structure in 2020 after neighbors complained to the city.
“There are a couple problems here — the tent is not a legal structure, since you aren’t allowed to add sheet metal to a tent,” Buehler said. “And, it is too close to oil storage tanks, too close to a property line, has combustible liquids stored in it, and doesn’t have [fire escapes] for employees.”
McGinn, however, said the city has no concerns with the structure.
“The building inspector looked at it and there was no problem with it,” he said.
Christensen Oil’s neighbors say the city should hold the company to higher standards, especially since it’s surrounded by homes. Dixon, the attorney, would like to see the company adopt American Petroleum Institute standards, instead of following a hodgepodge of fire department guidelines.
“It’s something most petroleum processors comply with, even if it’s not required of them, because it’s good business,” Dixon said. “We’re not asking [Christensen Oil] to be torn down, we’re saying, ‘Please put in some modifications that are not that expensive so we have some protections.’”
As City Council members listened to concerns about Christensen Oil over the spring, they drafted a contract with the company to further improve its operations.
Under the “Land Use and Site Improvement Agreement,” Christensen Oil’s operators agree to construct a warehouse to store barrels and totes, with a containment system to catch spills, that will also replace the tent structure. They agree to add sprinklers to the north warehouse used for oil storage. New permanent outdoor storage tanks will require city approval. The council voted in favor of the agreement on June 16, which also moves the property from nonconforming to permitted use.
It’s still waiting for Mayor Michelle Kaufusi’s signature.
McGinn said the delay is due to a boundary dispute Christensen Oil is working out with a neighbor. The line overlaps the area where Christensen wants to install its new tanks.
Christensen Oil also agreed to install tank filters to address odor problems, McGinn said, although that language isn’t included in the agreement approved by the City Council.
“We’re not quite done with it yet. We’re getting really close,” McGinn said. “It’s still a draft and it could change.”
McGinn did not provide a copy of the latest agreement, saying the draft was not yet available to the public.
City Council member Shannon Ellsworth said the city made every effort to update Provo residents about negotiations with Christensen Oil. She said she responded to many emails, met with multiple constituents and personally taped fact sheets about Christensen Oil to the doors of 80 people living in the Maeser neighborhood twice.
“The city did the best they could to bring information to citizens,” said Ellsworth, who represents District 3, which includes Christensen Oil. “It’s just a problem that’s been inherited … but there’s not a lot of risk, honestly. It’s not going to be a giant explosion like you see in the movies.”
But residents said the City Council’s compromise didn’t address their main demand — no net increase in oil storage capacity.
“The big argument that the fire department and city council say is, ‘Christensen never should have been allowed to build where it is,’” Buehler said. “Then their response to our complaints is, ‘Let’s let them build warehouses so they can store 10 times the amount of oil.’”
Maeser residents also said the agreement they’ve seen gave too many concessions to Christensen Oil and was rammed through the council before neighbors fully understood its implications.
“I felt like we didn’t have enough time to make people aware of the situation,” said Maeser resident Kanani Horito. “I love living here. I raised all six of my children here. But living in south Provo and having city officials make decisions when they don’t live in this neighborhood, it feels like maybe they don’t really care.”