A coalition of homeowners, a farmer, a hunting outfitter, conservation groups, and a rural county have filed a challenge to a natural gas drilling project near Durango, Colorado that will bulldoze roadless forest, worsen air pollution, threaten homes, and pollute wilderness areas and Mesa Verde National Park.
The coalition, led by the Durango-based San Juan Citizens Alliance, and represented by the non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice, filed an administrative appeal with the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service in Denver yesterday challenging the Northern San Juan Basin Coalbed Methane Project.
The project sets the stage for almost 200 new coalbed methane wells, including approximately 30 wells and 8 to 9 miles of new roads inside the currently undeveloped HD Mountains roadless areas. It also would permit approximately 40 wells near the Fruitland outcrop, which could increase seepage of gas from the underground coal deposits into people’s homes and water wells, and that could increase the threat of underground coal fires.
Bill Vance raises hay and grain on 80 of his 360 acres that are surrounded by the HD Mountains. “My biggest concern is that a drop in the water table will cause my domestic water wells to dry up,” said Vance, “as well as the springs that supply water for irrigation and livestock.” Coalbed methane drilling entails pumping massive amounts of groundwater out of coal seams to release the methane gas, a process that often dramatically alters groundwater aquifers, particularly near the outcrop of the coal seam.
Most recreational use of the HDs occurs during hunting season. “The HD Mountains are a main migration corridor for elk and deer, one of the few that remain intact,” said Mike Murphy, a hunting outfitter for the past 25 years. “Drilling will disrupt the migration and scatter the herds.” Murphy packs hunters into the HDs on horseback, sets up camp, and guides the hunt. He fears his business will suffer when the drilling starts.
“The Forest Service broke the law, low-balling its assessment of environmental harms, and violating commitments it made two decades ago to protect rare old growth ponderosa pine forests, water and wildlife in the HD Mountains,” said Keith Bauerle of the environmental law firm, Earthjustice, which represents the appellants. “It also ignored state and federal regulators who complained that the project would worsen the air pollution that can harm human health and that is turning the pristine vistas in Mesa Verde National Park to a hazy soup.”
Ancient pre-Puebloan Indians inhabited much of the HD Mountains, and for that reason much of the area is included in a nationally-designated historic district. “The HD Mountains provide a unique research opportunity to investigate how pre-Puebloan people responded to environmental variables,” notes Dr. Jim Judge, professor emeritus of archeology at Fort Lewis College. “We know that people moved into the HD Mountains with a population that peaked in 900 A.D., then moved out around 1000 A.D. We just don’t know why they moved in and out in a one-time situation. It seems to be clearly in response to environmental pressures. But if the HD Mountains are destroyed by gas development, society will forever lose the answers to these questions.”
Those appealing the project include: San Juan Citizens Alliance; Archuleta County, Colorado; Colorado Wild; Colorado Environmental Coalition; The Wilderness Society; the Oil and Gas Accountability Project; farmer Bill Vance; hunting guide Mike Murphy; and archeologist Dr. Jim Judge. The Forest Service must decide the appeal by July 5.
Read the appeal