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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...