Dirty Drilling Will Hurt Uintas, Greens Say

SALT LAKE CITY (CN) – An “insidious” federally approved 400-well oil and gas development project in a “biologically critical area” of Ashley National Forest will further pollute an airshed that already “periodically experiences some of the highest concentrations of ozone in the nation,” environmentalists claim in court.
     WildEarth Guardians sued the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and three agency officers, in Federal Court.
     WildEarth, a clean energy advocate working “to safeguard the climate,” claims the project, approved in 2012, violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and Utah water quality standards.
     Ashley National Forest, established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, spans 1.3 million acres and six counties in northeastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming.
     The forest includes Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area and the Uinta Mountains, and draws 2.5 million visitors annually for angling, backpacking, cross-country skiing and other outdoor activities.
     The area slated for development is in the southern foothills of the Uinta Basin on the “scenic and biologically important” West Tavaputs Plateau.
     Lands encompassed by the project area range from 6,375 feet above sea level in the north to more than 8,000 feet in the south.
     “The 400-well project is being developed on 25,900 acres, or 40.5 square miles of the Ashley National Forest, 11 miles south of Duchesne, Utah,” the complaint states. “The Forest Service has approved a development scenario that will continue for 55 years and entails the construction and operation of 400 oil and gas wells from approximately 162 well pads.”
     The project will put at risk an “ailing” Anthro Mountain population of greater sage grouse, “which will be additionally imperiled by the project’s roads, traffic, noise and industrial development and intrusion of oil and gas wells into sage habitats considered to be of crucial importance to the survival of the species,” according to the complaint.
     The project and its infrastructure also threaten 20,000 acres of inventoried roadless areas, “the last remaining segments of the forest still characterized by pristine wildlife habitats, natural vistas, sources of clean water, quiet recreational opportunities and solitude,” the complaint states.
     And, WildEarth says, emissions from the wells will further damage local streams and drainages.
     “The 400-well project will also result in emissions of contaminants into the Uinta Basin, further dirtying an airshed that periodically experiences some of the highest concentrations of ozone in the nation and where fine particulate matter air pollution that exceeds the national standards can rival the notoriously unhealthy levels of PM2.5 found along the Wasatch Front,” the 129-page complaint states. “Water quality in the upper reaches of the Duchene River, where the project and its attendant roads and well pads will be constructed, is not meeting Utah standards and, by introducing more sediments into local streams and drainages, the 400-well project will move these affected waters farther away from the mandated goal of complying with state criteria.”
     WildEarth calls the projected environmental costs of the project “insidious.”
     “The consequences of the 400-well project are particularly insidious because energy development in the Uinta Basin is rampant and cumulatively is having profound adverse impact on sage grouse, roadless areas and air and water quality,” the complaint adds. “On a regional level, the compounded consequences of these industrial projects are jeopardizing the public health and welfare, continually impinging on sage grouse populations, intact wildlife habitats and chances for recreation and are resulting in violations of Utah Water Quality Standards and National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Yet, the Forest Service and BLM have approved a project that will, by itself and cumulatively, add to environmental degradation that, under the law, must be remedied, not made worse.”
     Most of Utah’s crude oil and natural gas production – 75 and 72 percent, respectively – comes from Duchesne and Uintah counties, home to Ashley National Forest.
     “The result of all this oil and gas development activity in the Uinta Basin is severe air pollution that exceeds the federal health based standards,” the complaint states. “And therefore, as a matter of law, is harmful to the health and well-being of people and environments exposed to this pollution.”
     WildEarth seeks an order and injunction setting aside the project, plus costs.
     It is represented by Joro Walker with Western Resource Advocates.

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