MONTROSE – A newly formed group calling itself Citizens for a Healthy Community brought an estimated 150-200 demonstrators to the Bureau of Land Management Field Office in Montrose last Thursday (Feb. 9) to protest natural gas leases in the North Fork Valley.
Thursday was the final day for public comments as the BLM process moves toward the Aug. 9, 2012 quarterly oil-and-gas lease auction. The 22 parcels in question total approximately 30,000 acres, many of them immediately adjacent to the Delta County towns of Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford.
Protestors waved home-made signs along Highway 550, danced to a flash-mob performance, heard anti-drilling speakers including life-long ranchers and fruit growers, and sang along to “Gas Man,” a reggae-inflected anthem composed and performed by Paonia cherry orchardist and musician Mike Gwinn.
BLM Public Information Officer Shannon Borders had no official response to the high-spirited gathering except to say that “all comments would be incorporated into” the environmental assessment, which should be available next month.
Messages on placards included: “We Cannot Drink, Eat, or Breathe Money,” “Farming and Fracking Don’t Mix,” and “One Man’s Well is Another Man’s Disease.” One young boy carried a sign that read: “I Want to Grow Up Here. Don’t Make Me Move.”
The flash mob was organized by a group of North Fork mothers (“MAF Mothers Against Fracking”) who appeared out of the crowd and danced to George Clinton’s “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker).” In place of the chorus, “We want the funk,” the dancers sang, “Don’t Frack the Fork.”
Daniel Feldman of Citizens for a Healthy Community and its partner, the Western Environmental Law Center, spoke against “irresponsible oil-and-gas drilling in the Delta County area.” He noted that some of the nominated parcels are very near schools, and some include drinking water springs and irrigation ditches.
He brandished the group’s 50-page comment letter to the BLM, “with 70 exhibits attached” documenting health hazards associated with natural gas development in other Western Slope counties, including Garfield and La Plata. Thanks to an exemption crafted by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, he said, natural gas is not subject to regulation by either the Clean Air or the Clean Water acts. And without those protections, drilling in such close proximity to the North Fork communities would be irresponsible.
He said the group had collected 3,000 letters opposing the lease sale and would present a petition requesting a moratorium on any further leasing on the North Fork of the Gunnison. “There are 200,000 acres already leased in Delta County,” he said. “Why these acres, in such a vulnerable place?”
Paonia Town Trustee Lucien Pevec told the crowd, “We have learned a lot about how to do energy development safely.” Unfortunately, he said, “With whale oil, coal, steam power, and nuclear, we learned these lessons too late.”
The BLM says it does not reveal who nominates parcels for oil-and-gas leasing, because to do so before the auction would unfairly skew the bidding. Following a lease sale, the nominating parties can be named. No one in the North Fork knows who nominated these 30,000 acres for energy development.