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Front Page » July 27, 2004 » Local News » Federal Judge Rules in Favor Of BLM, Gas Exploration in N...
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Federal Judge Rules in Favor Of BLM, Gas Exploration in Nine Mile

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A logging truck travels down Cottonwood Canyon, bypassing the Great Hunt Panel. The road was diverted with money from the main gas exploration company targeted in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups concerning the West Tavaputs Plateau. The court issued a ruling in the suit last week.

A judge issued a decision positive to gas exploration in Carbon County last week. The ruling appeared to be a blow to environmental groups.

In a 50-page document released on July 21, Judge Emmet Sullivan of the United State District Court in Washington, D.C., ruled that exploration for deep natural methane bed gas can take place in the West Tavaputs Plateau, which surrounds the Nine Mile Canyon area.

The decision indicated that the United States Bureau of Land Management had done the federal agency's job and rock art as well as other artifacts in the area are not in danger of being damaged by the activities of Bill Barrett Company.

"Once again, the courts have affirmed that responsible energy development can occur while protecting the environment and sensitive resources like rock art," said Kent Hoffman, BLM deputy director of lands and minerals. "We've taken great care in the analysis and management in this project and we are confident special resources will be protected."

A suit brought by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Utah Rock Art Association, had delayed development that was started last spring by the company.

With the ruling, Barrett can continue with the company's planned exploration activities, including bringing in remote sensing equipment to define the ground structures under the plateau.

"The Stone Cabin seismic survey is a good example of a well planned, analyzed and managed project," pointed out Hoffman."We consulted with Native American Tribes, the Utah State Historic Preservation Office and a number of other agencies during the environmental review process. Numerous stipulations were attached to the final approval. The court decision verifies our decision was appropriate by both the spirit and the letter of the law."

However, SUWA representative Heidi McIntosh said part of the reason similiar lawsuits are difficult to win is because the principals in the projects focus on being moving targets.

"We are disappointed. But then, these cases are particularly hard to win," stated McIntosh. "They kept agreeing to do different surveys all the way through the process such as putting monitors (archaeologists who observe the companies activities) on the ground. That changes things."

Carbon County officials spoke about the decision, indicating that the result is a good one for the county and its economic base. They also thought it showed that science won out over emotion for a change.

"I think this is a great decision," said Carbon County Commissioner Mike Milovich. "Barrett is probably one of the most environmentally conscious companies around. They have had monitors up there with them all the time they are doing their work and there hasn't been one complaint."

He continued, "This county needs the jobs and the country needs the resource. It's about time the courts made environmentalists provide science to back up their claims."

As for those monitors, McIntosh said that they would probably have not been there if it had not been for the suit.

"Before the action the BLM and Barrett told our attorney Bill Block that they wouldn't have any monitors on the project," she said. "Now they have them. That makes us feel better about having resources identified before work is done."

After finding that there would be "no significant impact" on the environment, the Bureau of Land Management's Price Field Office approved the Stone Cabin three dimensional geophysical exploration project in March of this year. At the time the Price Field Office concluded that the project was consistent with the BLM's multiple-use mandate, which seeks to accommodate valid uses of the public lands while protecting the resources on those lands.

The field office also determined that the project would have no impact on the rock art and other cultural resources for which the region is noted.

BLM said it would take special precautions to ensure that any impacts within Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) would be so minimal as to preserve the suitability of these WSAs for congressional designation as permanent Federal wilderness.

According to the federal agency's Price associate field manager, Fred O'Ferrall, the BLM's decision to approve the geophysical exploration project came after more than 22 months of review and the completion of an in-depth environmental assessment.

The analysis included the consideration of more than 24,000 comments from the public and the BLM's consultation with Native American Tribes, other land management agencies, and local government.

Not long after, the plaintiffs filed a motion for a summary judgment to stop the exploration, contending that the BLM violated the Administrative Procedures Act and that specifically the action ran "afoul of the National Historic Preservation Act (NEPA) and the Federal Land Policy and management Act (FLPMA)." The results of that filing were brought to an end last Wednesday.

Despite the fact that most of the exploration is actually taking place on the plateau above Nine Mile Canyon, much of the controversy swirled around the rock art that exists in the canyon. It is considered the premier collection of that type of art in North America. The claim was that the vibrating trucks and shock waves from the equipment used to do the underground surveys could damage the rock art and other sites.

The plaintiff's claims were all tied to the fact that they felt the BLM had not "conducted a survey of the area that adequately identifies resources, such as rock art, potentially at the risk of harm from the vibrations."

The court said that because of this the central issue was whether the BLM's identification efforts of the resources were adequate. In other words the court needed to look at whether there were undiscovered resources in the project area and whether these unknown and known resources could be harmed by the vibrations.

The court found that even though the plaintiffs were able, through the use of an anthropologist who could locate resources within the boundaries of the vibration areas that had not been recorded by the BLM, that the vibrations would not be strong enough to cause damage to known or unknown resources.

However SUWA was not totally despondent about the situation concerning the case.

"What we have been looking for is that resources are identified before the work begins and with the monitors in place we have at least some of that," said McIntosh.

While it was not addressed in the lawsuit, some advocates of keeping all exploration out of the area said that the dust from the increased traffic due to exploration is just as damaging to the rock art.

Barrett recently spent over $30,000 to relocate a road away from the "Great Hunt Panel" because it was right next to the road and many feared it could not only be damaged by the dust but also by vehicles banging into it, because of its position by the road.

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July 27, 2004
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