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Paonia trustees approve BLM comment letter at special meeting

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Photo by Tamie Meck Paonia Mayor Charles Stewart and Mayor Pro Tempore Chelsea Bookout consider trustee comments at Monday night's special meeting to consider a draft comment letter to the BLM regarding proposed oil and gas lease sales in the North Fork

In a special meeting held Monday evening, the Town of Paonia Board of Trustees voted to authorize Town Administrator Ken Knight to execute and submit a draft letter to the Bureau of Land Management regarding the Preliminary Environment Assessment for proposed oil and gas lease sales in the upper North Fork Valley. The letter is signed on behalf of mayor, the board, and town citizens.

The preliminary EA was issued Aug. 27 and the comment period closed Sept. 11.

The BLM announced earlier that it pulled more than 5,000 acres from the original lease sale proposal. Five parcels and approximately 2,800 acres are still being considered. Two parcels are located around the Paonia Reservoir and three are located in the Muddy and Hubbard Creek watersheds.

The seven-page letter addresses numerous points of concern, most of them included in the town's original scoping letter. When the preliminary EA was released it was discovered that the town's five pages of scoping comments were omitted from consideration. The letter questions how the BLM failed to account for the comments, which included more than 100 petition signatories.

Citizens for a Healthy Community, a 500-plus member "grassroots nonprofit organization" formed to address the impacts of oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley, submitted comments to the town after reviewing the 157-page preliminary EA. Knight, in part, relied on those comments, an analysis of the town's scoping comments and information specific to the lease sale to draft the letter, as well as the town's original scoping comment letter.

Speaking before the board, CHC associate program director Andrew Forkes-Gudmondson said comments submitted by the North Fork-based Colorado Food and Farm Alliance on behalf of the Valley Organic Growers Association, West Elk AVA, and Slow Food Western Slope, 30 local farms and business and about 125 petition signatories were also excluded from the EA. Forkes-Gudmondson said he knew "at least six individuals that I know personally" whose comments were excluded.

While CHC comments including 133 individually signed letters were considered in the preliminary EA, those submitted by the Paonia-based Western Slope Conservation Center (WSCC) and signed by more than 100 of its members were also excluded.

Excluded comments represent "hundreds, at a minimum, and possibly even more" North Fork Valley citizens, said Forkes-Gudmondson.

Trustee Bill Bear questioned why comments referencing emergency management services provided by the North Fork Ambulance, Paonia Fire Department and state Highway Road Safety are included in the letter, since those organizations "don't fall under town purview?"

"The effective implementation" of EMS services "will impact both the town as an entity and the residences of that town, said Forkes-Gudmondson. "If there's a bad hazmat management plan, then residents of the town could stand to be impacted if a truck crashes into the Muddy."

Calling it a "huge gap as far as emergency response and hazmat rapid response," WSCC executive director Alex Johnson said they are working on that question with Delta County and the Delta County oil and gas working group, a diverse group formed to address the county's draft Master Plan, of which Johnson is a member.

The final draft Environmental Impact Statement on the current proposed sales as well as some 224,000 additional acres of BLM-administered lands, is scheduled for late October, followed by a 10-day protest period. A final decision is expected on Dec. 6.

Town comments reflect a strong disagreement with the BLM's scheduling of the lease sale prior to completion of the Uncompahgre Field Office Draft Resource Management Plan. They urge the BLM to defer a decision on the lease sales until a final record of decision on the draft plan is issued next spring. That plan would replace the existing 1989 RMP the town's comments describe as "woefully outdated."

"The BLM does have the authority to defer or cancel leases at any point in this... analyses process," and can defer them until after the record of decision is issued, said Johnson.

Trustees also voted to authorize Knight to submit a copy of the comment letter to the Delta County Board of County Commissioners, with a letter attached suggesting that the BoCC incorporate the town's comments in any comments submitted to the BLM.

The motions passed on a 4-1 vote, with Trustee Bill Bear voting nay; Trustee Samira Hart was unable to attend the meeting.

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BLM, oil and gas lease, Paonia
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