Dust on the rocks

  • After Connie Silver's study was denied federal funding, the Bill Barrett Corp. ended up paying for it. (It's not uncommon for project proponents to fund the environmental impact statements for their projects.) But Barrett also had a surprising amount of access to the study -- and the principal scientist behind it -- as the research was being done. This message to Duane Zavadil, Barrett's vice president for environmental and regulatory affairs, in which he's asked to comment on the proposal for a $133,000 study, is indicative of such access. Scot Donato, Barrett's manager of environmental health and safety, was also included in various conference calls and e-mail discussions between Connie Silver and BLM officials. After Keith Kloor wrote an article in Science magazine in January about the initial study results, Howard suggested in an e-mail that Silver: " -- send an apology email directly to Scot Donato at BBC and let him know that your comments were taken out of context and misconstrued."

  • Shortly after returning from Nine Mile Canyon last July, Connie Silver e-mailed Howard with some apparent bad news. It seems that Silver had collected some compelling preliminary data from her field work. It's unclear, however, what the "news" was exactly that "someone had to break to BBC" or which site needed to be cleaned up "asap, after the road is fixed."

  • After the draft EIS was published, Julie Howard claimed that she did not know about the Oct. 22 lab report confirming the presence of magnesium chloride in Nine Mile Canyon. "This is the first I'm hearing of it," she told Kloor in a brief February phone interview. However, this e-mail, sent to Howard from Silver on Oct. 31, not only mentions the report, but also its alarming results, which she would later relay to Kloor in the interviews mentioned in this story.

  • Constance Silver measures dust in Nine Mile Canyon.

    Courtesy photos
  • Constance Silver measures dust in Nine Mile Canyon.

    Courtesy photos
 

Last summer, Constance Silver spent a week examining the world-renowned rock art in Utah's Nine Mile Canyon, a two-hour drive south of Salt Lake City. Tucked into the rugged Tavaputs Plateau, the place contains upwards of 10,000 images, painted and pecked onto sandstone walls. Many of them are visible from the curving, roughly graded road.

But the respected art conservator wasn't there to admire the renderings of hunters, bighorn sheep and geometric patterns. Rather, she came to study dust. More specifically, to take air samples and observe the brownish-gray clouds kicked up by an armada of oil and gas trucks as they rumbled through the canyon.
After wrapping up her fieldwork, Silver stopped by the local Bureau of Land Management office in nearby Price, which oversees Nine Mile Canyon, and sought out its lone archaeologist, Blaine Miller. She informed Miller that the dust was having an "alarming effect" on the rock art and "had to be taken care of immediately."

Interview with the author:

 

"In your dreams," Miller said, recalling the exchange. His own concerns had been repeatedly ignored by his superiors since 2004. That was when the Bill Barrett Corporation, a Denver-based energy company, began exploratory drilling for natural gas higher up in the plateau, using Nine Mile's rutted road as the main transportation route.

Silver, who specializes in restoring vandalized rock art, became adamant, according to Miller. "No, not in my dreams," she insisted. "It has to be taken care of now."

A year has passed since that conversation, however, and nothing has been done to solve the problem. Not only that, but Silver's original findings have essentially disappeared. Hundreds of documents obtained recently through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that crucial data and other supporting evidence attesting to severe dust contamination never made it into her study, which was released last February. These omissions enabled the BLM to cast Silver's report as inconclusive, at a time when the agency was approving a controversial proposal for expanded drilling by Barrett. It's not clear exactly what happened to the study or why, but the story of how it got watered down provides a window into the murky mingling of science, industry and an underfunded federal agency faced with an onslaught of energy development.

The doctored study is just one of many questionable actions taken by the BLM during the past five years relating to gas drilling impacts in Nine Mile Canyon. To many critics, the crowning insult came earlier this year, when the BLM issued its draft environmental impact statement for Barrett's 800-plus gas well project. "It is the worst document I have seen in my 30 years working in the BLM," Miller told me recently. Forbidden to participate in the review, Miller, who is an expert on Nine Mile Canyon, wasn't even permitted to see the document until it was released to the public. "There's nothing in there about how bad the dust is, what the effects are on the rock art, no attempt to mitigate any of it."

For decades, scientists and rock art buffs have marveled at the prehistoric carvings and paintings in Nine Mile Canyon. Even the BLM has acknowledged Nine Mile Canyon's importance, calling it the "largest concentration of rock art in North America."

Most of the pictures were left by the Fremont people, a culture of farmers and foragers that thrived throughout Utah a millenium ago, before leaving the area around 1350.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • WYOMING CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    We are hiring a Wyoming Conservation Associate Full time, competitive pay and benefits. Location: Cody, WY (preferred), Jackson, WY, or Lander, WY Visit www.greateryellowstone.org/careers for...
  • SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the nations leading national park advocacy organization, seeks a Regional Director to lead and manage staff for the Southwest Regional...
  • DIRECTOR OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS
    This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • PROGRAM OFFICER, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES, NOVO FOUNDATION
    The Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social transformation...
  • ARMY OF THE DOG
    A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • ANNIE CLARK TANNER FELLOWSHIP IN ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    The Tanner Humanities Center and the Environmental Humanities Program of the University of Utah seek an environmental writer to offer classes in Utahs Environmental Humanities...
  • ALASKA STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • IDAHO RIVERFRONT:
    2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS IS EXPANDING - THREE JOB OPENINGS
    Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • SUNNYSIDE MARKET SEEKS NEW PROPRIETOR
    Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • NO INDIVIDUAL HEROES: OURAY MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM
    Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM COORDINATOR - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM MANAGER - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, SOUTHERN CA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • THE BOOK OF BARLEY -
    Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • TEMPORARY ASSISTANT EDITOR
    Are you a climber and a writer who is passionate about mountain literature? Do you love searching through old alpine journals for stories of esoteric...
  • RIVER TRIP LEADER & EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...