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

Page 3

I was surprised by Silver's certainty, because the last time we'd spoken about her study, over the phone in September, she made a point of telling me how difficult it might be to distinguish current impacts to Nine Mile Canyon from those that began a century ago, when homesteaders first arrived. During that period, the main road through the canyon was also used as a freight route, which no doubt produced its share of dust. Bored cowboys and stagecoach drivers were fond of using the rock art panels for target practice. Later, pothunters and tourists started leaving their own stains on the landscape.

"Let's face it, (Nine Mile Canyon) is not a pristine environment," she said to me. "What I was concerned about was how much of the dust is coming from current use and how much from 100 years of mistreatment. I was worried from the beginning how we were going to figure that one out. But now when you get the magnesium marker, you can pretty much say you're getting a really accelerated settlement of dust."

Silver was not opposed to Barrett's operation herself, but she believed her study results were so "harsh" that some environmental groups might seize on them to try to stop it. In 2004, activists and archaeologists had unsuccessfully sued to halt the company's incursion into Nine Mile Canyon.
They never got the chance, however, to use her results, because the version of her study published in early February contains none of the relevant, damaging information Silver expressed either to me or in her e-mails to Julie Howard.

In fact, Silver's published study makes no mention of the positive magnesium chloride finding throughout the canyon. Instead, it describes the difficulty of separating out the historical and naturally occurring dust and concludes that "thus far it has been impossible to isolate and identify magnesium chloride in the laboratory."

After learning of the e-mail exchanges between Silver and Howard, Nine Mile advocates are seething. "All these years, we thought they (BLM) were just being irresponsible," says Utah archaeologist Jerry Spangler, an expert on the canyon. "Now it's moved to willful, intentional deceit to benefit an agenda and one particular developer, and that's really disturbing."

If relevant lab results were intentionally excluded from the EIS, it was "a violation of NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act), which in the full spirit of disclosure, the federal government is supposed to present the most recently available information, not that which supports an industry project," says EPA's Larry Svoboda, a Denver-based director of the agency's NEPA program.

In a recent phone interview, Howard said no such intent existed. "To the best of my knowledge, we included everything we knew at this point," she said. But when confronted with e-mails showing that she knew about the excluded lab results at least four months before the EIS was published, Howard claimed that the results didn't get into the impact statement because the deadline had already passed. "We weren't trying to hide anything," Howard insists.

Barrett's involvement in the study also seems to be a point of confusion for Howard. She first said that the gas company "never saw the study until it was done." However, an extensive e-mail paper trail reveals that Howard kept Barrett officials abreast of Silver's progress, even giving them a chance to weigh in on draft reviews and participate during conference calls. In August, Duane Zavadil, Barrett's vice president for environmental regulatory affairs, confirmed that company officials saw the study before it was released to the public. However, he says: "We didn't provide a single editorial comment. We never asked for a word in the report to be changed."

Still, that the energy company paid for the study and was then allowed to review drafts before it was released "suggests that the process was biased," says Jeffery Clark, an archaeologist with the Tucson-based Center for Desert Archaeology. At a minimum, Clark says, the BLM should have put up a firewall between Silver's study and the company. "If data was withheld, then that's illegal," he adds. "That's like an archaeologist finding a site where the development is taking place and not recording the site. That would be grounds for shutting down the project."

Before any of this would be known, the BLM was already getting hammered from all sides regarding the Barrett EIS it released in February. In recent months, major concerns over ozone pollution, stream contamination, disappearing wildlife habitat, and of course, continuing destruction to the rock art, have poured in from many quarters, including the Utah governor's office, environmental groups, the Hopi (who claim ancestral ties to Nine Mile), and lately, the Environmental Protection Agency, which gave the EIS a failing grade for faulty air modeling of emissions.

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