DEQ calls for baseline data

DEQ calls for baseline data in Wyoming Range drilling proposal

´╗┐JACKSON — A prominent state agency echoed public sentiment over water quality in the Wyoming Range regarding a controversial gas drilling proposal in the popular recreation area.

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality submitted public comments to Bridger-Teton National Forest officials on March 11, the date the comment period closed. It urged forest officials to establish baseline data to determine how, if at all, water quality is affected if the energy project moves forward.

“While a groundwater monitoring program was briefly discussed in the [draft environmental impact statement], there did not appear to be a meaningful discussion of a surface water monitoring program, only that [best management practices] and other measures would be monitored,” DEQ’s comment letter, signed by Water Quality Division Administrator John Wagner, said.

DEQ called this lack of information a “glaring omission.”

The DEQ submitted its 10-page letter as part of the call for public comments for the draft environmental impact statement the Forest Service released this winter. It analyzes a proposal by Plains Exploration and Production out of Houston to drill 136 wells on 17 pads in an area outside Bondurant in the Wyoming Range. The document also analyzed several alternatives, including a “No Action” alternative.

“The DEIS has several deficiencies regarding water quality monitoring and mitigation, and analysis of existing and potential impacts which we believe must be addressed and put out for cooperator and public comment,” the DEQ said.

Specifically, DEQ officials said the draft environmental impact statement “does not provide sufficient detail in how it intends to monitor water quality and prevent water quality impacts.”

The agency recommended that a science-based surface water and groundwater monitoring program be implemented.

DEQ also said the draft environmental impact statement did not use site-specific data to analyze impacts to water quality from roads.

“This problem is compounded in the DEIS because these GIS-based assessment results appear to have been inconsistently combined with site-specific data and knowledge, preventing reasonable comparisons between alternatives,” Wagner wrote. Therefore, the inconsistent placement of roads prevents the understanding of the impact of new roads on watersheds.

Wagner’s letter also complained that without direct monitoring of streams before, during and after development, there are no means to assess whether goals are achieved, again reiterating the need for baseline data.

“As we’ve seen at Pinedale, the Jonah field, Pavillion and elsewhere, it is not uncommon to identify impacts to groundwater quality associated with oil and gas development,” Wagner wrote.

The DEQ’s letter also pushed the Forest Service to include what chemicals are used in hydraulic fracturing, a process of infusing a mix of chemicals and water into the ground to break up bedrock to better extract gas.

“This DEIS fails to discuss the current state of common knowledge regarding potential impacts to groundwater quality that may be associated with hydraulic fracturing,” the letter said. Information exists about the chemical makeup and content of fluid, and DEQ says that information should be “discussed and described.”

The Forest Service has said its next step is to respond to all public comments — estimated to be about 40,000 — and incorporate changes. There is no timeline for that next step.

Gary Amerine, vice president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association, said agency comments seeking baseline data are “business as usual.”

His group worked with PXP and other agencies to reach a voluntary agreement in which, among other things, PXP would retire some of its leased acreage and contribute some $6 million to monitoring and mitigation efforts in exchange for drilling rights.

“A lot of money PXP has offered up is headed in their direction,” Amerine said of the DEQ. “A lot of that money will be used for these baseline studies prior to development.”

Amerine said he understood there will be additional things DEQ is looking for.

“Everybody wants this done in the best way possible,” he said. “The more data that can be collected, obviously, the better.”

Representatives from PXP did not return an e-mail or call for comment Friday.