Multiple environmental groups are suing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for authorizing Bill Barrett Corp. to conduct the Stone Cabin 3-D seismic gas exploration project on the West Tavaputs Plateau of eastern Utah this summer, possibly endangering cultural resources, such as rock art, cliff dwellings and other structures in nearby Nine Mile Canyon.
“These fragile, irreplaceable national treasures are directly at risk from the Stone Cabin project,” according to The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Wilderness Society, Sierra Club and the Utah Rock Art Research Association.
But BLM says the environmentalists’ arguments are misleading. BLM has taken “every reasonable measure” to ensure archaeological resources will not be harmed and wilderness areas will be preserved. And a spokesman for Bill Barrett Corp. attacked the environmental groups, saying their main mission is fund-raising.
“Their motivations are to maintain their jobs at environmental groups, and they do that by rabble rousing, by keeping their profile high in the media and by being able to tell their members that they continue to engage in brinksmanship over energy development in this country. What that allows them to do is to continue to keep asking people for more money,” said Bill Barrett Corp. spokesman Jim Felton.
But Stephen Bloch, staff attorney for SUWA, says “Irreplaceable cultural resources will be damaged or destroyed if natural gas exploration is allowed to proceed as planned. We’re going to do our best to stop that from happening. The Bush Administration has no shame when it comes to elevating energy development over all other uses of our public lands, but the Stone Cabin project takes the cake.”
And according to Layne Miller, president of the Utah Rock Art Research Association’s board, “Nine Mile Canyon contains rock art from Native American cultures from thousands of years ago to the Ute period of a few hundred years ago. It’s a truly unique area and one worth fighting for.”
The BLM, however, maintains that all cultural resources will be carefully protected. In an op-ed piece published in the Salt Lake Tribune on April 4, Fred O’Ferrall, BLM’s associated manager of the Price, UT, field office, said the agency went to great lengths to complete a comprehensive environmental review that examined the potential impacts to all of the resources.
“We came to a balanced decision that allowed for research of energy resources while still protecting the archaeological and other resources,” said O’Ferrall. “This included a strict monitoring plan and numerous measures to minimize impacts (the company would be required to water the roads to minimize dust, not blade any new roads, use helicopters to transport equipment to sensitive areas, etc).”
In fact, the Stone Cabin seismic survey will not be located in Nine Mile Canyon, where the bulk of the cultural resources are located. Only 10% of the project would be located along tributary canyons, including Cottonwood Canyon, Harmon Canyon, and Dry Canyon. In these canyons, seismic activity would be limited to use of existing roads using vibroseis, a new technology that has replaced what used to be called “thumper trucks.”
O’Ferrall said that a March 24 editorial in Salt Lake Tribune, was “fraught with errors and omissions of details key to understanding the scope and potential impacts of the project. Our coordination with the tribes and other agencies was discounted; low energy vibroseis testing was sensationalized as ‘thumping,’ and the project’s location was misconstrued to be in Nine Mile Canyon rather than the West Tavaputs Plateau where a gas field has existed for nearly 60 years.”
He explained that vibroseis is “one of the least invasive forms of gathering geophysical data,” in which low-frequency vibrations are sent into the ground that “cannot even be felt by the average person 50 feet away.”
Furthermore, a gas field has existed on the West Tavaputs Plateau since the 1950s and widespread drilling activity has occurred in the project area. There are 48 abandoned or shut-in wells there and currently 19 existing wells are capable of producing gas.
To protect cultural resources, BLM said 300-foot distances would be maintained from all known rock art and standing structures. Professional BLM-permitted archeologists also will be onsite during the operations. The project would not authorize any additional development in the area. However, development on state and private lands already has started and continues to occur in and around Nine Mile Canyon.
BLM plans for the Bill Barrett Corp. survey to take place over a three-month period in the early summer of 2004.
O’Ferrall said the BLM has taken “every reasonable measure” to ensure archaeological resources will not be harmed and wilderness areas will be preserved. “We would have never approved any project if we thought there was chance of significantly impacting archaeological resources.”
Nevertheless, according to the environmental groups, this project may be just the tip of the iceberg. “The Stone Cabin project is one of several projects proposed by Denver-based Bill Barrett Corp. (BBC) that is rapidly changing the face of the Nine Mile Canyon region, an area that the State of Utah describes in its website as an ‘outdoor museum’ that ‘should be shown the respect due to one of the West’s ancient treasures’ (https://www.utah.com/playgrounds/nine_mile.htm),” they said in a statement.
“In addition to the Stone Cabin seismic project, the BLM will soon be releasing another environmental assessment — this time for 38 ‘exploratory wells’ in the exact same area as the seismic project,” the groups said. “BBC also has been working on major pipeline upgrades and new compressor stations, and is proposing more of this type of industrial infrastructure. Despite these numerous related development projects, however, the BLM refuses to analyze these projects in a comprehensive environmental impact statement.”
Bill Barrett spokesman Felton said its always the same story repeated over and over by the environmental groups. “They just use White Out to change the date and the place [on their lawsuits]; it’s always against the BLM and always involves the same issues.”
“Our motivations are to as carefully and conscientiously develop the resources that every single person in this country needs every single day,” said Felton. He said the environmental groups’ real motivation is simply self preservation; they file lawsuits to “justify their fundraising,” not to protect the environment.
Felton said Bill Barrett Corp. has taken great pains to ensure that cultural resources are protected. “We provide the money and expertise to protect these artifacts. About the only thing we’ve seen produced by the environmental groups are just more lawsuits.”
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