Greens Challenge Drilling in Uinta Basin


SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - The federal government illegally approved oil and gas drilling near Utah's scenic Uinta Mountains that will aggravate the nation's worst wintertime ozone pollution, environmentalists say in two lawsuits.
     The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and The Wilderness Society sued the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management in Federal Court. The private developers are not parties to the lawsuits.
     The plaintiffs challenge environmental impact statements authorizing Gasco Production Co. to drill six oil wells (in one lawsuit) and a gas well (in the second lawsuit) in the Uinta Basin, bordered to the north by the snowcapped Uintas.
     "Ozone levels in the Uinta Basin monitored between 2010 and 2011 were among the worst in the nation, comparable with Los Angeles County," the plaintiffs say.
     They claim the environmental impact statements did not adequately address impacts on air and water quality, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Acts, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
     The drilling will exacerbate already intolerable levels of ozone pollution, the environmentalists say.
     "In the winter of 2010 - the first time that winter ozone was monitored in the Uinta Basin - two EPA-directed monitors in the Uinta Basin recorded nearly 40 days between January and early March where ozone exceeded federal and state air quality standards. The fourth-highest value recorded was 117 parts per billion, or ppb.
     "In the winter of 2011, these same monitors recorded similar, elevated levels of ozone. The fourth-highest value recorded at any monitor was 116 ppb in February 2011 in the Uinta Basin and approximately 24 days of recorded values above federal and state air quality standards between January and March," according to the complaint challenging the Sheep Wash gas well.
     The Sheep Wash gas well was approved in March. The six oil wells, approved in 2012, are to be in the Eightmile Flat and Pariette Draw regions of the BLM-managed basin, in northeast Utah.
     The areas are part of a large BLM waterfowl management area, and provide habitat for pronghorn antelope and raptors, "among other remarkable wildlife," according to the Sheep Wash complaint.
     "Despite the rural and remote nature of the project areas, the greater Uinta Basin where the project is located experiences some of the nation's worst wintertime ozone pollution levels. The Sheep Wash EA [Environmental Assessment] acknowledges that the levels of ozone - a serious pollutant regulated under the Clean Air Act - in the Uinta Basin, frequently exceed federal and state air quality standards. Much of the air pollution problem in the Uinta Basin is attributable to oil and gas development," the plaintiffs say.
     "BLM's lack of analysis will result in serious consequences," the groups say. "One of the nation's worst ozone pollution problems will be aggravated as the result of this shortsighted analysis. Cumulative impacts have not been treated seriously or, with regard to certain resources, not considered at all."
     Elevated levels of pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act, including ozone, have been detected in the basin by federal and state quality monitors, and in approving the projects, the BLM acknowledged Gasco's wells "will likely worsen ozone problems," both complaints state.
     "A worsening of the ozone problems in the Uinta Basin means that exceedances of federal and state air quality standards will continue," the plaintiffs add.
     Communities in the basin include Vernal, pop. 9,089; Duchesne and Roosevelt; and the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation, home to the Northern Ute Tribe.
     The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, based in Salt Lake City, claims members in all 50 states and "several" foreign countries.
     The Wilderness Society, founded in 1935, "views protecting wilderness quality and other sensitive Utah BLM-managed lands as vital to achieving its mission."
     The plaintiffs seek orders reversing and remanding the BLM decisions, and injunctions prohibiting Gasco from building or operating the wells.
     They are represented by Liz Thomas.