Natural-gas drilling threatens ancient rock art

Published February 15, 2008 7:24 pm
BLM studying effects of allowing more wells in Eastern Utah's Nine Mile Canyon
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Posted: 7:24 PM- Eastern Utah's Nine Mile Canyon holds more than 10,000 known American Indian rock-art images. But they may be no match for 800 gas wells.

A Denver-based energy company's proposal to drill at least that many wells on the West Tavaputs Plateau threatens the thousand-year-old Anasazi ruins, where dust and chemicals are already corroding peerless rock art.

And the Bill Barrett Corp. wants to drill some of those wells in wilderness study areas and critical habitat for deer, elk and sage grouse, as well as operate year-round instead of laying off for the winter as has been the tradition to accommodate wildlife needs.

Conservationists say the company's full-field development of the Stone Cabin and Peters Point gas fields would guarantee the end of Nine Mile Canyon as it has been for millennia.

"This project, if approved, if implemented, will be the death blow for Nine Mile Canyon, for the cultural sites there and for the wilderness-quality areas there," said Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney Steve Bloch. "You just can't have the intensive development Barrett is proposing and protect those resources."

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has issued a four-volume draft environmental impact study of Bill Barrett's development plan, and acknowledges the potential harm to wildlife, air quality and scenery.

But it was the ongoing and potential harm to archaeological treasures that prompted most public concern in the early days of environmental analyses. Responding to the outcry, the BLM crafted an alternative specifically addressing industrial traffic in the canyon.

Nine Mile Canyon, actually about 50 miles from Myton to Wellington, supposedly is protected under the federal Antiquities Act and already among fewer than 70 comparable wonders listed on the BLM's National Backcountry Byway System.

But Bill Barrett holds the leases, and those leases come with rights to explore and develop a minimum of one well for each parcel, BLM officials said.

That includes leases in the Jack Canyon and Desolation Canyon wilderness study areas that date back to the 1950s and happen to hold the richest potential.

The company estimates the project would yield about 1 trillion cubic feet of gas during more than three decades of drilling, when big rigs would make hundreds of trips every week for more than three decades up and down the narrow canyon road.

The gas yield would equal about 17 days of national natural gas supply at today's consumption level.

Dust in the wind

The Bill Barrett draft EIS is a broad overview, said Brad Higdon, planning and environmental coordinator in the BLM Price field office.

Before drilling can commence, each well location, pipeline and road will get a separate evaluation based on "ground truth" culled from on-site surveys involving biologists, archaeologists and other resource specialists, he said.

The agency already knows that one of the biggest problems is dust and the chemicals used to tamp it down.

Road-maintenance crews have been spraying heavy quantities of magnesium chloride on the dirt road since development of West Tavaputs geared up about five years ago.

In 2002, there were just seven wells on West Tavaputs, which straddles Carbon and Duchesne counties near Desolation Canyon. Now there are about 100 wells on the plateau, where EnCana Corp. of Canada also is operating. The BLM also is expected to soon release an EIS on a proposal from Gasco Energy to drill 1,500 wells nearby.

Duane Zavadil, Bill Barrett's vice president for government and regulatory affairs, has long acknowledged the gravel road that winds through the canyon wasn't built to carry the kind of traffic it is seeing, and isn't properly maintained.

During a 2005 field trip on the old commerce road built by the African American Buffalo Soldiers during post-Civil War westward expansion, Zavadil told The Salt Lake Tribune that 80,000-pound tankers that serve drilling sites tear up the road in five passes.

In addition to the thousands of rock-art images, the canyon also houses stagecoach stations and pioneer settler cabins emblematic of the Old West, many close to the road where trucks kick up dust clouds too thick to see through.

Magnesium chloride controls the dust, but also clings to adjacent rock and attracts moisture from the air. The chemical can eat concrete. A typical 30 percent concentration freezes at -1 degree Fahrenheit. When that happens, the rock and the art carved into it expands and crumbles.

That art is irreplaceable - and no one even knows exactly how many sites are jeopardized, because there has never been a full archaeological survey, said Nine Mile Coalition member Steve Tanner.

The coalition's members include hikers, off-highway vehicle users, landowners, government agencies, scientists, ranchers, industry, people who grew up there and people who live there now. They don't necessarily want to stop the drilling, Tanner said.

"We understand that natural gas is one of the finest things you can have in your household," he said. But full industrial development of the canyon would be "an ugly mess."

Paving the way

Carbon County has a deal with energy developers to maintain the road in proportion to companies' use. The BLM's right-of-way agreement with Bill Barrett includes a dust-abatement requirement.

A BLM-commissioned study of the problem suggested one solution might be to use recycled asphalt to pave sections of the road. Zavadil said Bill Barrett would prefer not to pave but to "minimize conflicts" and continue with some kind of dust suppression.

Last year, Carbon County spent about $310,000 to rotomill and armor-coat two miles of roadway in seven sections near rock art and ranches, said County Commissioner Bill Krompel. Now he'd like the companies and state and federal agencies to chip in.

"We've bit the bullet and independently built two miles," he said. "We set the example. Asking everyone to put in $300,000 per year is not going to break anyone's back."

Pam Miller, a professional archaeologist who chairs the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition board of directors, said the group has no position on whether to pave the roads, which would require elaborate engineering and even more big trucks to bring in the paving material.

Anyway, because no one really knows how many archaeological resources reside in the canyon, "it's kind of silly to say you can pave the road near the rock art panels when we don't even know where they are," she said.

In the meantime, trucks continue to roll, kicking up dust that could bury the art forever.

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