Federal court hearing set in Colorado refuge drilling suit
DENVER ” A judge will soon decide whether federal authorities have done enough to hand over documents to an environmental group opposed to gas drilling in a national wildlife refuge.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty has scheduled a contempt of court hearing May 8 against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its parent agency, the Interior Department, in the case of a FOIA request by the Citizens for San Luis Valley-Water Protection Coalition in drilling on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.
The coalition claims the agencies haven’t fully complied with a court order to turn over documents sought under the federal Freedom of Information Act on the decision to allow drilling on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge in south-central Colorado.
The U.S. attorney’s office, representing the federal government, declined to comment Thursday on the allegations.
The environmental group opposes drilling on the refuge about 200 miles southwest of Denver. The group claims communications between a federal attorney and Toronto-based Lexam Explorations show favoritism by the government for the company disregard for public concerns.
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Lexam disputes that it and the government behaved improperly.
The company plans to drill two exploratory wells on the refuge this summer unless Senior U.S. District Court Judge Walker Miller bars the plan. The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council filed a 2007 lawsuit saying a more thorough environmental analysis is needed and is seeking a preliminary injunction to block drilling until its challenge is decided.
Federal authorities were supposed to hand over remaining documents in the FOIA lawsuit by April 3, but requested more time March 30. The environmental coalition said last week that another delay is excessive and violates the magistrate’s deadline.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has said drilling the two wells won’t have any significant impacts on the area.
Lexam acquired the mineral rights in the 1990s on what was then the 97,000-acre Baca Ranch. The land was later acquired by the federal government to preserve the terrain and geological features responsible for the dunes at the adjacent Great Sand Dunes National Park
Some of the land became part of the national park, with the rest becoming the refuge in 2004.
Federal law gives mineral-rights holders the right to reasonable use of the surface to extract minerals.