BLM airs out position on air quality on Roan |

BLM airs out position on air quality on Roan

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will be better off working to prevent air pollution on the Roan Plateau than monitoring it, an agency official said Tuesday.

Jamie Connell, manager of the BLM’s Glenwood Springs Field Office, explained the agency’s plans for protecting air quality on the plateau during a meeting in Parachute. The BLM got together with representatives of government agencies cooperating with the BLM as it prepares its management plan for the plateau.

Rifle Mayor Keith Lambert questioned why the BLM doesn’t intend to monitor air pollution coming from the plateau, where the agency anticipates allowing natural gas drilling.

Craig Nicholls, a national air quality modeler for the BLM, answered that modeling shows drilling and other activities would create no significant air quality impacts, either locally or regionally.

Connell said that modeling is based on conservative projections, and actual air pollution could be less. She added that the federal government already collects air quality samples from the plateau and the surrounding region, so the BLM doesn’t need to do its own monitoring.

“We can watch the reports for free,” she said.

She said the agency instead should focus its resources on making sure that activities such as drilling comply with BLM rules. Monitoring, by contrast, identifies a problem only after it already has occurred.

Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt questioned how the BLM could find that the energy development expected to occur on the plateau wouldn’t exceed air quality standards.

“Are our standards so low that we’re not concerned about air quality anymore?” she asked.

Nicholls said weather patterns would help disperse plateau pollution over a large area. He said the government’s goal is to have air quality reach “natural conditions” by 2064 at a regional level, through means such as improvements in technology. But that would still allow for smaller-scale air pollution problems to be created within the region, he said.

But Nicholls said the activity contemplated for the plateau is projected to result in visibility standards being exceeded in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison near Montrose and the Mount Zirkel wilderness near Steamboat Springs one day per year at most. Benzene and formaldehyde emissions could exceed standards regionally but would still be within the Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable range, he said.

Mike Neumann, land use director for Rio Blanco County, expressed concerns over smaller-scale but intense air quality problems, such as one that occurred there involving a plume of dust from an evaporation tank associated with energy development.

Connell said the BLM can address and control such problems as part of its permitting process.

*Tuesday’s air quality discussion was part of a far-ranging day of talks that covered everything from water issues to grazing to noxious weed control.

State and local government officials were unanimous in wanting to see an aggressive weed control program on the plateau.

“We don’t care how you do it, just as long as it’s done and done well,” Garfield Commissioner Larry McCown.

He worried about whether the BLM has adequate resources to control noxious weeds.

Parachute town administrator Juanita Satterfield reiterated concerns the town has about sufficiently protecting the Roan Plateau watershed, the source of the town’s water supply. She said sediment from well pads and other gas drilling activity has doubled sediment in that water supply in just the past two years. Satterfield also is worried about the prospect of illegal use of water on the plateau for drilling on top.

Even legal water use could affect creek levels on the plateau, a critical habitat for Colorado River cutthroat trout. Connell noted that the BLM can’t prohibit use of water on the plateau for drilling there. Colorado, and not the federal government, governs water rights within the state.

However, the BLM has authority over whether water diversion structures are built on its land, which would give it some influence over energy firms’ use of water on the plateau.

Yet another consideration is how energy companies would dispose of water they produce during the drilling process. Releasing that water into streams could create both water quality and quantity problems. Connell said such water might also create a benefit if it could be made available to ranchers grazing livestock on the plateau. A current problem there is that while grass for livestock is plentiful, water is not, so the animals head to creeks where they tear up sensitive habitat and add to sediment problems. The BLM hopes that once its new plan is complete, it will have a legal framework for creating watering spots away from streambeds.

As the BLM continues to work with cooperating agencies on its plan, some agency representatives Tuesday expressed frustration over trying to offer opinions based on hypotheticals, because they don’t know what the agency is planning. For example, the agency hasn’t indicated whether it plans to allow a southwestern access point to the plateau for energy companies, or only access via Cow Creek Road from the north.

A western access point could create additional concerns in Parachute about drilling-related traffic that already is increasing. From Garfield County’s perspective, it would have a bearing on whether drilling might be able to proceed in an orderly fashion from north to south. The Colorado Division of Wildlife is looking at how access points could affect habitat.

Connell acknowledged the agencies’ concern, and said the BLM could begin laying out some of its plans at its next meeting, scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Aug. 16 at the Re-2 office in Rifle.

Connell said one commitment she could make now is that the BLM supports unitization of gas leases. That approach would hold one energy company responsible for extracting gas over a large number of leases. It would then split the proceeds with other lease holders in the unit. Under unitization, the BLM could better limit well pads, roads, pipelines and associated structures.

Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516

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