Four Mile residents step up fight over drilling prospect near Glenwood Springs
December 1, 2013
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado — Jim and Sharill Hawkins have done the math, and the prospect of heavy oil and gas industry truck traffic rumbling up Four Mile Road every 18 minutes or so would equal the end of their 17-year-old bed-and-breakfast business.
"A haul route up this road would ruin us," said Jim Hawkins, who together with his wife runs the Four Mile Creek B&B, with its distinctive red barn that sits as a landmark on the historic 1885 homestead.
"People come here for a nice, quiet stay away from the noise," he said. "We couldn't have a bed and breakfast with that kind of traffic going by all the time."
It's the Hawkins' belief that the lives and property values of most everyone who resides or does business along the Four Mile corridor hang in the balance over a proposal to open public land in the Thompson Divide area to oil and gas drilling and use Four Mile Road as the primary haul route.
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Owner of Four Mile Creek Bed & Breakfast
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"Why would we want to ruin a strong tourism economy here to help Houston's economy," Jim Hawkins said in reference to SG Interests, the Houston-based energy company that has applied with the U.S. Forest Service to develop its disputed Thompson Divide oil and gas leases five miles south of Sunlight Mountain Resort.
In a recent supplement to its bid to drill two exploratory gas wells within the company's Lake Ridge Unit, SG indicated it would run more than 1,000 heavy truck trips up and down Four Mile Road and through Glenwood Springs in conjunction with the exploration work.
However, the amount of truck traffic is not specified should those wells prove successful, and full-scale production is begun.
If that does happen, it would be a much different reality for an area that's now defined by a mix of low- and medium-density subdivisions, including Sunlight View and Oak Meadows, and which carries ski and snowmobile traffic to and from Sunlight area in the winter and Four Mile Park all year long.
The only heavy industrial type of traffic on the winding road now is the occasional logging truck heading to and from timber sales in Four Mile Park, which the Hawkins estimated at maybe "five or six a day," depending on the time of year.
Beyond the impacts along Four Mile Road, "Glenwood Springs would be a different town if this goes through," Sharill Hawkins said, referring to the in-town traffic impacts as oil and gas trucks make their way through town toward Interstate 70.
After SG's estimate of truck trips was reported late last month, she said even more requests came in for the "Unified for Thompson Divide" yard signs that already line Four Mile Road and can be found displayed throughout Glenwood Springs and nearby Carbondale, which also stands to be impacted.
"For me, the road is just one portion of the whole problem with this proposal," Sharill Hawkins said. "If drilling happens up there, I see a range of problems from the impact on hunting, fishing, ranching, the water …"
Added Joe Mollica, who also lives up Four Mile, natural gas development "will have a significant impact on this whole area. We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars worth of private property up here."
He places responsibility on the Garfield County commissioners and Glenwood Springs City Council to do whatever is necessary on their part to ensure that Four Mile Road is not used as a haul route.
"It comes down to, are they going to protect our property like they say they are, or not," Mollica said.
County commissioners, who oversee the county road system including Four Mile, were set to review Four Mile Road restrictions and county enforcement authority at the start of their regular Monday Garfield Board of County Commissioners meeting, beginning at 8 a.m. in Glenwood Springs.
The commissioners have weighed in on the Thompson Divide issue, advising White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams in a Nov. 30, 2012 letter that Four Mile is not considered a designated heavy haul route for oil and gas traffic.
"Garfield County emphasizes that future oil and gas leasing, permitting and development recognize and respect Garfield County's well-established preferred haul route system," the commissioners state in the letter.
"In recognition of current oil and gas development plans in the Thompson Divide area, Garfield County emphasizes that County Road 117 (Four Mile) is not a designated heavy haul route," that letter stated. "As such, as part of the permitting and approval processes, all oil and gas traffic should be directed to only use existing haul routes."
Rather than Four Mile, the county commissioners have recommended that, if drilling is allowed in Thompson Divide, access should come from the Divide Creek side where a series of primitive Forest roads could potentially be improved to provide access to designated haul routes in the area south of Silt.
Forest Service officials have indicated, however, that new road construction in remote forest areas is not likely to be approved along with the drilling requests.
Road work ahead
Although the industry-friendly county commissioners are on record that Four Mile is not to be considered for a haul route, they have come under criticism recently for proceeding with more than $3 million in planned improvements to one section of the road.
Critics say the plan to realign the Black Diamond Mine Road intersection, replace a bridge over Four Mile Creek at that point, and scale back a rock outcropping so that the so-called "dead man's curve" can be straightened, would make it easier to accommodate oil and gas traffic.
"A whole bunch of us went to a meeting with the county commissioners about blowing that rock up, and shared our concerns that this is just going to open up Four Mile to becoming a haul route," Mollica said.
"All three of (the commissioners) straight up looked at everyone there and said Four Mile Road is not a designated haul route," he said. "(Commissioner) John Martin shook my hand and assured me it's a designated 'no haul route,' and that it would stay that way."
Commissioners contend that the road improvements have been in the works for several years, since long before the prospect of oil and gas traffic was contemplated, and are meant to address general safety concerns.
"We know people are concerned about oil and gas traffic, but that was not our intention in making those (road) improvements," said county Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, who also has an interest in the matter as part owner and general manager of Sunlight Mountain.
"Our intention was to make that a better road for individuals and businesses up there," Jankovsky said. "Our position has been, and remains, that there will not be oil and gas traffic up that road."
If the county has to be the one to enforce that, he said he's willing to stand behind that position, including enforcement of road weight limits and maintaining the right to deny overweight and oversize haul permits.
"The city of Glenwood also has some powers with regards to the use of their streets and bridges," Jankovsky added.
Former county commissioner and Four Mile resident Trési Houpt said the county can take the additional step of closing Four Mile Road to future oil and gas traffic.
"Sure, the county would probably be sued, but they have said they would be willing to go to court over this," she said. "But the commissioners have to take responsibility for this."
Jim and Sharill Hawkins also wonder how much "teeth" the letter to the Forest Service and enforcement of weight restrictions has in keeping industry traffic off of Four Mile Road.
"We still wonder why the county is doing all that road work, when their constituency has said they don't want it," Jim Hawkins said of the curve-work portion of the project in particular. "It still makes us wonder what the real agenda is.
"I think the fear is growing about what this could mean up here," he adds. "The county has also said it's concerned about the drop in property values. Well, property values are going to drop dramatically up here if this happens."