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A Bitter Debate: BLM Plans to Expand Drilling Near Bitter Lakes Refuge

Oil and gas development proposed on the outskirts of a southern New Mexico wildlife refuge

A federal agency is proposing to allow oil and gas development on the outskirts of a southern New Mexico wildlife refuge, an action that has environmentalists worried that drilling and accidental spills could contaminate the waters of the refuge.

The Santa Fe environmental group WildEarth Guardians wants all oil and gas development prohibited in vicinity of the refuge, but a proposal by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management would allow additional oil and gas exploration - banned in the area since 1997 - to occur on nearly 10,000 acres adjacent to the refuge.

"The effects of numerous well bores into the underlying aquifer are unknown," said Hamilton Smith, a WildEarth Guardians biologist. "All of these waters are connected and accidental contamination will be impossible to contain and would lead to the contamination of the refuge."

Bitter Lakes National Wildlife Refuge east of Roswell harbors 30 types of waterfowl and 24 species of fish, including the Pecos gambusia, an endangered minnow. Springs and an underground river that originate on the surrounding BLM lands supply water to the refuge's lakes, sinkholes and seeps - as well as marshlands and mud flats off the refuge.

The Roswell office of the BLM determined the proposal would have "no significant impact" on the environment, but Smith said the plan does not adequately address the threat of contamination by leaks and spills.

The BLM prepared an Environmental Assessment to comply with a 1997 order from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to close lands next to the refuge to drilling unless the agency would take measures to protect the habitat of four endangered species there. The EA, which addresses habitat protection, does not in itself permit new individual oil and gas wells, but it does allow more areas to open for exploration and for existing wells to continue. Exploratory drilling would have to follow much tighter environmental safeguards than before, such as using steel tanks to hold mud and sealing casings in steel and concrete to protect underground leaks in boreholes.

Key officials of the BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service familiar with the proposal were out of the office this week and unavailable for comment.

The EA, published in October, said the probability of contaminating springs that supply water to the refuge "is very remote, but not discountable. The probability of an accident increases as the number of producing wells are developed in the area."

The BLM lands next to the refuge have 17 natural gas leases with a total of 20 wells on them that would be allowed to continue operating under the proposal.

The proposal also allows nine unleased parcels to be opened for exploration that the agency said could lead to about 66 new wells.

The Lake St. Francis and Bitter Lake Research Natural Areas - 1,000-acre lakebeds within the refuge - contain gypsum sinkholes that are habitat for rare native fish and aquatic plants.

The two fragile areas are closed to the public except for scientists and school groups by prior arrangement.

The rest of the 24,536-acre refuge is open daily for self-guided auto tours, bird watching and wildlife photography.

Copyright 2005 The New Mexican - Reprinted with permission


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