Coalition Files Suit Against HD Mountains Decision -- January 23, 2008
download the full complaint (pdf)
Organizations representing landowners, farmers, hunters, and other users of the HD Mountains continued their decades-long effort to keep the HD Mountains free of coalbed methane wells today as they filed a lawsuit challenging the approval of new wells and roads planned for the watersheds and critical winter wildlife habitat of the roadless area near Bayfield. The lawsuit is in response to last summer's authorization by the San Juan Public Lands Center for 27 new wells and 11 miles of new roads within the HD Mountains roadless area.
"The HD Mountains are the last tiny, little corner of the San Juan Basin not yet drilled for natural gas development," said Jim Fitzgerald, who farms on 320 acres adjacent to the HD Mountains. "We rely on the undisturbed watersheds of the HD Mountains for our irrigation water and for keeping our farms healthy and productive."
Residents oppose drilling that threatens not only the majestic stands of old-growth ponderosa pine and abundant herds of wildlife, but also the very health and safety of their homes and families. The Forest Service's preferred alternative waives a long-standing health and safety regulation that bans drilling along the outcrop of the coal-bearing Fruitland Formation that holds the coalbed methane.
Industry plans for drilling the HD Mountains, as approved by the Forest Service, will lace the currently roadless mountains with at least 27 miles of new roads cut into some of the steepest and most rugged terrain in the San Juan Mountains. The roads and gas pads will also obliterate remaining stands of the old-growth ponderosa pine forests in the HD Mountains, many over 300 years old. Ponderosa pine has the least remaining old-growth of any forest type in the San Juans, less than 5% of the pre-European settlement figures.
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 in the foothills of the San Juans. The HDs also offer excellent backcountry horseback riding experiences in lower elevation areas accessible most of the year.
The lawsuit alleges the Forest Service and BLM decision to approve new drilling violates the requirements of the current San Juan Forest Plan to protect old-growth forest, wildlife habitat, water quality and riparian areas. The plaintiffs also claim the project will worsen the region's ozone pollution and further impair declining visibility at Mesa Verde National Park and the Weminuche Wilderness.
The lawsuit was filed by San Juan Citizens Alliance, Oil and Gas Accountability Project, Colorado Environmental Coalition, Colorado Wild and The Wilderness Society. The plaintiffs are represented by Earthjustice, a public interest environmental law firm.
Coalition Appeals HD Mountains Decision - May 21, 2007
Local elected officials, farmers, hunters and other area residents concerned about plans for drilling gas wells around the HDs Mountains filed an appeal on May 21, 2007 challenging the Forest Service's decision that approved dozens of new coalbed methane wells. The collection of appellants includes the Archuleta County Commissioners, a hunting outfitter, a farmer who relies on the HD Mountains for irrigation and domestic water, and an archeologist as well as a several local, state and national conservation organizations.
Read the press release describing the appeal, or download the full appeal.
Forest Service Releases Decision
The San Juan National Forest released its Record of Decision (ROD) for drilling the HD Mountains on April 4, 2007.
The ROD responded to the public's two most severe concerns about drilling on the Fruitland formation outrcrop and drilling in the roadless area in the following ways. Compare maps of the draft and final preferred alternatives to see changes.
Roadless Area Impacts
The Draft EIS proposed 57 well pads and 38 miles of new roads within the boundaries of the HD Mountains inventoried roadless area. New roads and wells were planned for essentially every ridgeline and every valley.
The Final EIS and ROD significantly reduces the number of authorized wells and roads. It places the heart of the roadless area (Ignacio Creek) off limits to coalbed methane drilling because of concerns about landslide hazards, slope stability, erosion, and watershed impacts, although this restriction could be lifted at some future date if industry demonstrates an ability to construct roads and well pads without impacts. The FEIS leaves the entire Ignacio Creek watershed undeveloped (good news!), for the time being, and also precludes development across portions of the top of the HD Mountains. The change reduces the impact to the roadless area from 13,000 acres down to 5,000 acres (out of 27,000 acres the USFS considers roadless).
However, there are still several serious concerns about the remaining wells planned for the roadless area. The agency's preferred alternative includes road construction across 7 miles of steep slopes at high hazard for landslides to reach many of the remaining drilling sites authorized in the roadless area.
Fruitland Outcrop Impacts
The preferred alternative proposes to authorize about 40 new coalbed methane wells within 1.5 miles of the Fruitland Formation outcrop, nearly all of which are located in Archuleta County. As is well documented from recent history with drilling near the outcrop in La Plata County, expected consequences include methane seeps that could contaminate homes and water wells and drying up springs and water wells from the groundwater drawdown associated with CBM extraction.
The preferred alternative does not respond to the overwhelming public comment about the serious, irreversible impacts from drilling near the outcrop. Five local governments -- La Plata and Archuleta county commissions, and town councils of Bayfield, Ignacio, and Durango -- unanimously passed resolutions calling for no new wells near the outcrop. The BLM's Southwest Resource Advisory Council raised similar concerns. Thousands of individual comments made the same point.
Despite this tidal wave of public concern, the Forest Service's preferred alternative is to proceed with most of the planned drilling near the outcrop by utilizing vague, voluntary, and unenforceable mitigation measures. For example, the Forest Service proposes to monitor water wells and vegetation along the outcrop for signs of methane seepage, and then suggests it will force operators to cease production if "reasonable evidence" indicates a cause and effect between the CBM wells and the observed methane contamination. Industry has never acknowledged responsibility for any methane impacts, so it seems highly unlikely they would ever agree to cease production under these circumstances.
The Forest Service's proposed mitigation for homes and wells contaminated with methane is a voluntary financial buyout by industry. For example, one mitigation measure is "an offer of a surface owner agreement or financial bond" to potentially affected landowners, without any minimum requirements for the content of such an offer, and no hard and fast requirement an agreement actually be struck. Most landowners do not find it satisfactory to have their homes contaminated by methane caused by nearby CBM production, and then be offered either a financial buy out or be forced to live with perpetual methane mitigation efforts.
A Better Course of Action
The FEIS acknowledges that Alternative 6, an alternative that prohibits drilling in the roadless area and along the outcrop, best responds to the concerns of the public and local governments. The clear hazards posed to area residents from drilling on the outcrop, and the landslides and watershed impacts posed by drilling in the roadless area, clearly provide the Forest Service ample reason to condition and restrict drilling in these sensitive areas.
Prevention is the best medicine for residents living near the outcrop. Once the methane contamination genie escapes the bottle, there is no going back. Similarly, once the steep slopes of the HD Mountains are destabilized by road construction, the landscape will never be put back together.