27 Jun Update on CHC’s Case Against Delta County’s Approval of Seismic Mapping Projects
Holding government bodies accountable is a core part of CHC’s mission. We have been fulfilling this mission in regards to Gunnison Energy’s seismic mapping projects since October 2018 when the operator began seismic surveying operations without notifying Delta County or the community of its planned seismic exploration activities. As a result of hunters sounding the alarm over activities that disrupted hunting season, and our efforts, Delta County required the company to submit to the County’s Specific Development Application process. Unfortunately, despite months of CHC alerting the Planning Department to flaws in the application and review process, the Planning Department approved two 3D seismic applications on April 15, 2019 without consideration of vital information required by the regulations. In addition to the substantive flaws within the application, the Delta County Commissioners improperly engaged in the merits of the project, violating their obligations to be impartial as the body that hears appeal of administrative decisions.
CHC appealed the Planning Department’s administrative decision to approve the 3D Seismic Iron Point and Trail Gulch applications on April 29, 2019. The Delta County Commissioners held a hearing on the appeal on June 6, 2019 and denied our appeal on June 11, 2019. As stated in our complaint “The Board denied CHC’s appeal, reasoning that Planning Staff followed the Regulations to the best of its ability, the Applicant will mitigate harm, and there was not sufficient evidence to uphold an appeal.” On June 12, 2019, CHC swiftly filed a lawsuit against the County Planning Department and the Board of County Commissioners for making an arbitrary and capricious decision not in compliance with law and an abuse of discretion. CHC also filed a request for a temporary restraining order to prevent the County from allowing the projects to proceed until the lawsuit is completed and resolved.
Despite CHC’s objection, Gunnison Energy was granted status to intervene as a party to the lawsuit, arguing that Delta County could not adequately represent the company’s interests. On June 19th, Seventh Judicial District Chief Judge J. Steven Patrick heard our case for a temporary restraining order. After hearing over six hours of testimony, Judge Patrick found that CHC suffered procedural harm, but would not suffer irreparable harm. He concluded that the County process was deficient and lacked critical information. However, he was not convinced that the proposed operations would result in irreparable harm, which is the standard required to grant a temporary restraining order. Click here to read more on the Court’s reasoning.
Dr. David Noe, former manager of Colorado Geological Survey’s geologic mapping program, who was responsible for mapping most of the North Fork Valley and the proposed project area testified that the slopes in the area are unstable and made up of landslide material that could easily be reinitiated. He also stated that the comment letter from the Colorado Geological Survey (CGS) that the County relied upon had no site-specific geo-technical information and did not include geological information required by the County’s application criteria. In his opinion, more information was necessary to determine the slope stability of the area to bear the proposed activity without risk to initiating landslides. The CGS letter in fact recommended a slope stability study, which the county did not require of the applicant.
Gunnison Energy’s Director of Seismic Operations, and its expert witnesses, testified as to the safety of the proposed seismic operations, and the number of seismic operations conducted around the country without incident when proper setbacks are imposed. While the former State Engineer for Colorado, and Mark Burgus, geophysicist and ground motion consultant, would not say that contamination of groundwater or landslide initiation, respectively, could never happen, they did not see it in their experience.
In the end, they demonstrated lack of damage (generally defined as immediate, within 24 hours) in geologic areas unrelated to our own, outweighed the risks associated with site-specific slope instability. Judge Patrick denied our motion for a temporary restraining order. By doing so, Gunnison Energy is allowed to proceed with the project until our case is resolved. Judge Patrick recognized the procedural harm caused by the deficiencies in the county process and the urgency of expedited judicial review by the court to hear the lawsuit brought by CHC before the company can complete the project, which would render the lawsuit moot.
Our goal from the beginning has been to ensure the proper processing of these applications by the County so that all necessary precautions and mitigations are taken into consideration to protect the community, especially in light of our unstable geology. Mark Burgess responded to Dr. David’s Noe’s testimony as being a scenario of “the straw that broke that camel’s back”, for which there is no evidence. We certainly don’t want to see anything go wrong, and hope that scenario does not materialize.
While the Judge’s decision denying the TRO is not the outcome we had hoped for, his finding of procedural harm is a victory for concerned citizens and community oversight of County actions.
So what does this means for us in the community? Gunnison Energy is surveying the project area and will be conducting seismic operations, which includes blasting of shot holes on private and public land from June through August. To be clear, this is NOT a drilling project. It is a seismic mapping project to determine the natural gas reserves in the project area. They can start operations on private land in June and on public land July 1. As a reminder, here are the maps of the project areas—Iron Point and Trail Gulch. Also here are the County’s and the Forest Service Conditions of Approval. Delta County is supposed to be in the field monitoring the projects. If you note any rock slides or unusual activity please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gunnison Energy has also submitted an application to expand an existing wellpad on private land to add six additional wells in the same IronPoint project area. See below for more information on that project and comment deadline.