Development of federal leases in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana will have to await a revised plan to mitigate the impact of brine brought to the surface in coalbed methane drilling on rivers in the area, according to a review published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week.

In a letter from EPA’s regional administrator, Robert E. Roberts, the agency labeled the “preferred alternative” in the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) prepared for the Bureau of Land Management “environmentally unsatisfactory,” because loading the streams and rivers with untreated salty water would make them unsuitable for agricultural irrigation. Further, EPA rated the draft EIS itself “inadequate.”

EPA could not pass on two other alternatives, which prescribe infiltration and treatment of the water, because the draft EIS provided no analysis of how well the process would work to meet state water quality standards. There also was insufficient information as to how development would affect air quality.

The draft EIS estimates that coal bed methane production in Wyoming alone will ultimately proceed on 8 million acres of federal, state and private lands, with about 65% of it controlled by the federal government. About 51,000 coalbed methane wells and another 3,200 conventional wells will be drilled. In Montana, BLM projects 9,551 wells will be drilled by 2010.

EPA complained that separate draft EIA statements for Wyoming and Montana made it almost impossible to evaluate the cumulative effect of development in the contingent areas. EPA has recommended preparation of a combined revised or supplemental EIS for both states, presenting “alternatives that the industry can implement and that are sufficient to protect all affected water bodies.” It should incorporate existing state agreements and the water quality thresholds being prepared by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. These items are being prepared and should be available shortly. EPA also offers to assist in preparing a watershed management framework that sets an allowable threshold of untreated water and alternative methods of water treatment.

“We believe that this complex situation should be resolved by effective dialogue between the Bureau of land Management offices in both states, the State of Wyoming and the downstream State of Montana,” Roberts said in the EPA letter. “The downstream Crow and Northern Cheyenne Tribes should also be included in these discussions.”

The process could mean another year before development can proceed, according to the Wyoming Outdoor Council, which advocates phased development and reclamation. Noting that the basin already is 98% leased for federal coalbed methane, the council is opposing further leasing without extensive study.

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