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17 February 2008
Natural-gas drilling threatens ancient rock art in Utah

Eastern Utah's Nine Mile Canyon holds more than 10,000 known American Indian rock-art images. But they may be no match for 800 gas wells. A Denver-based energy company's proposal to drill at least that many wells on the West Tavaputs Plateau threatens the thousand-year-old Anasazi ruins, where dust and chemicals are already corroding peerless rock art. And the Bill Barrett Corp. wants to drill some of those wells in wilderness study areas and critical habitat for deer, elk and sage grouse, as well as operate year-round instead of laying off for the winter as has been the tradition to accommodate wildlife needs.
     Conservationists say the company's full-field development of the Stone Cabin and Peters Point gas fields would guarantee the end of Nine Mile Canyon as it has been for millennia. "This project, if approved, if implemented, will be the death blow for Nine Mile Canyon, for the cultural sites there and for the wilderness-quality areas there," said Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney Steve Bloch.
     The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has issued a draft environmental impact study of Bill Barrett's development plan, and acknowledges the potential harm to wildlife, air quality and scenery. But it was the ongoing and potential harm to archaeological treasures that prompted most public concern in the early days of environmental analyses. Responding to the outcry, the BLM crafted an alternative specifically addressing industrial traffic in the canyon.
     Nine Mile Canyon supposedly is protected under the federal Antiquities Act and already among fewer than 70 comparable wonders listed on the BLM's National Backcountry Byway System. But Bill Barrett holds the leases, and those leases come with rights to explore and develop a minimum of one well for each parcel, BLM officials said. The company estimates the project would yield about 1 trillion cubic feet of gas during more than three decades of drilling, when big rigs would make hundreds of trips every week for more than three decades up and down the narrow canyon road.
     The agency already knows that one of the biggest problems is dust and the chemicals used to tamp it down. Road-maintenance crews have been spraying heavy quantities of magnesium chloride on the dirt road since development of West Tavaputs geared up about five years ago. Magnesium chloride controls the dust, but also clings to adjacent rock and attracts moisture from the air. The chemical can eat concrete. A typical 30 percent concentration freezes at -1 degree Fahrenheit. When that happens, the rock and the art carved into it expands and crumbles.
     That art is irreplaceable - and no one even knows exactly how many sites are jeopardized, because there has never been a full archaeological survey, said Nine Mile Coalition member Steve Tanner.A BLM-commissioned study of the problem suggested one solution might be to use recycled asphalt to pave sections of the road. Pam Miller, a professional archaeologist who chairs the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition board of directors, said the group has no position on whether to pave the roads, which would require elaborate engineering and even more big trucks to bring in the paving material. "It's kind of silly to say you can pave the road near the rock art panels when we don't even know where they are," she said. In the meantime, trucks continue to roll, kicking up dust that could bury the art forever.

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune (15 February 2008)

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