July 11, 2008

Citizens Coalition Sues Feds Over Oil, Gas Project Records

By Matt Hildner, The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo.

Jul. 11--ALAMOSA -- A San Luis Valley citizens' group sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Thursday, claiming the agency failed to divulge public records related to a proposed oil and gas project on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Denver, calls for the court to require the defendant to provide all records responsive to a Dec. 11 request by the Citizens for San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition.

The coalition's Freedom of Information Act request focused on records related to the agency's ongoing study of a proposal by Toronto-based Lexam Explorations to build two exploratory gas wells on the refuge.

"Seven months ago, we asked the government to show us what they were sharing with Lexam," said Ceal Smith, a consultant for the coalition. "This is supposed to be a public process. But the public is being systematically shut out while industry is invited to the decision making table."

Diane Katzenberger, a spokeswoman for the agency's regional office, declined to comment on the issues raised in the complaint, stating that agency policy prohibited the discussion of matters under litigation. In January, the agency issued a draft environmental assessment of the proposal that allowed for drilling on the 92,000-acre refuge that sits just to the northwest of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

Thursday's complaint alleges that on at least one occasion, the regional solicitor for the Department of the Interior provided an internal draft of the study to Lexam before it was publicly released and that the company returned the document with edits.

The coalition argues that under FOIA, those records, once they've been divulged to a third party, are no longer internal agency documents and should be open to the public.

"Once you open it up to someone, you have to open it up to everyone," said Travis Stills, an attorney for the coalition.

The agency's response to the coalition on April 1 also stated that a number of other records were still under review.

Those documents the agency did release in April are available in the press release section of the coalition's Web site.

Katzenberger said that since the solicitor's office had not yet seen the complaint, the agency did not know how the suit would affect the release of the final environmental assessment on Lexam's plans.

The Lexam proposal was the subject of a 2007 lawsuit by the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council that led to the agency's decision to conduct the environmental assessment.


San Luis Valley Water: http://www.slvwater.org .


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