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Old La Sal's defenders fear the sting of developer's drills

Published September 26, 2005 12:55 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

MOAB - A few years ago, William Perritt fell in love with the La Sal Mountains. He purchased 6.6 acres with an eye on eventually retiring in the Deer Haven subdivision of Old La Sal, some 40 miles southeast of Moab.

But now, an exploratory seismic survey proposed for federal lands surrounding his piece of heaven has angered Perritt and other nearby landowners.

“I've never been to a place before where I loved it so much I actually pick out a burial site,” said Perritt, who currently lives in Virginia. “It's a sweet place, and we're understandably upset about this.”

During a community meeting Tuesday night, representatives from Denver-based Bill Barrett Corp. and the Forest Service outlined project details and responded to questions from residents and business owners who are concerned that opening the area to oil and gas exploration will damage land and wildlife, endanger the aquifer and disrupt the quiet, peaceful atmosphere of Old La Sal.

Bill Barrett Operations Manager Michael FitzMaurice said the company will use small “buggy” drills in roaded areas. Elsewhere on the 13,693-acres project site, a portable drill transported by helicopter will be used to drill holes for specialized explosives that create ground vibrations, revealing the underground geologic features of the area through a process called three-dimensional geophysical seismic testing.

The drill holes pose no threat to water sources, FitzMaurice said.

“Once the equipment is retrieved, there will be virtually no trace that seismic [exploration] was here,” he said.

Federal officials announced the public comment period on Aug. 4, giving citizens 15 days to submit comments. The Forest Service received a barrage of letters and phone calls requesting more time. Earlier this month, officials extended the comment period through today.

Forest Service Ranger Lee Johnson said exploratory projects meet federal guidelines for a “categorical exclusion” that requires only a 15-day comment period. To drill for natural gas and install pipelines, Bill Barrett must submit a new proposal subject to stringent federal regulations, including an environmental assessment or environmental impact study, public hearings, and a longer public comment period.

But Teague Eskelson, a real estate developer and co-owner of Mount Peale Inn, said he worried that noise from helicopters will disturb guests, and that truck traffic on nearby roads would endanger residents.

“Is [the helicopter] going to be my guests' alarm clock?” Eskelson said. “This is our downtown.”

About 20 people attended the meeting, and almost 60 private landowners who were unable to attend - including Perritt - submitted letters.

Perritt believes that allowing oil and gas exploration near Old La Sal runs contrary to efforts by Eskelson and others to create a peaceful community that is also environmentally conscious. The Deer Haven subdivision includes strict covenants to preserve views, protect the aquifer, and promote sustainable energy. Deer Haven property owners hope to eventually construct a solar- or wind-powered station to provide electricity for homes.

“I don't see where the economic impact [Bill Barrett] is going to have on the area is going to benefit the community as much as the people who own property out there,” Perritt said.

But some who attended the meeting, including La Sal resident Hardy Redd, voiced support for the project.

Redd said he has allowed seismic exploration on his privately owned property, and does not think it will damage the landscape.

“I don't know now where the lines were or where the drill shots were,” he said.

Perritt is skeptical.

“There's a lot of strong feelings about this place,” he said. “I'm not inclined to keep that piece of land if [gas exploration] comes in.”

lchurch@citlink.net