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CHC sues county over seismic project

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Citizens for a Healthy Community has filed a lawsuit against Delta County Commissioners and the Delta County Planning Department. The complaint alleges planning staff violated the county's Specific Development regulations in reviewing and entering into a development agreement on two specific development applications by Gunnison Energy to conduct three-dimensional seismic testing operations in the Iron Point and Trail Gulch areas northeast of Paonia.

Paonia-based CHC is a grassroots nonprofit formed in 2009 in response to resident concerns over risks of large-scale oil and gas development. In a complaint filed June 12 in Delta County District Court, CHC alleges that the county did not follow its own specific development regulations in entering into an agreement with GE, and that the planning department deemed the applications to be complete, "despite the absence of information required by law."

CHC asks the court to determine whether county planning staff improperly processed and approved the applications.

The roughly 30-square-mile project areas include the Turner, West Muddy, Hubbard, Terror and Clear Fork water sheds and critical habitat for endangered cutthroat trout and Canada lynx. Delta County's review was limited to private land within the project area.

Because seismic testing is set to begin in June, CHC also filed a temporary restraining order to prevent the county from enforcing its regulations, said CHC interim executive director Natasha Léger. It was necessary, said Léger, because if the project continues "there will be irreparable harm."

The public learned about the projects after elk hunters alerted conservation groups last fall of surveying for dynamite-based seismic exploration in the area.

At a March 11 county meeting to determine if the applications can proceed administratively, the BoCC determined that they contained sufficient information to comply with county regulations and authorized planning staff to enter into development agreements with the applicant. CHC responded by filing an appeal of the decision.

As first reported on social media by the Delta County Citizen Report, on June 11, commissioners voted unanimously to deny CHC's appeal.

Gunnison-based attorney Chris Mochulsky filed the complaint on behalf of CHC. At a June 6 special meeting of the BoCC to consider CHC's appeal, Mochulsky explained that CHC is not addressing the board to argue that the seismic projects can't go forward; rather he argued that the county's approval process was flawed and that the applicant failed to provide the county with specific information.

That information includes an assessment of geological hazard within one-half mile of the project area and a plan for mitigating those hazards; information on ground water hydrology as required under the county's Specific Development Regulations; and that the applications contain no information on local geology or hydrologic conditions "such as groundwater content and groundwater levels." Without that information, CHC alleges in its complaint, there is no assurance that "the use and maintenance of irrigation infrastructure will go uninterrupted."

At the June 6 special hearing on the appeal, Delta County community and economic development director Elyse Casselberry responded to CHC's allegations. Casselberry said GE did provide mapping of geologic hazards and a brief analysis of its proposal to mitigate geological hazards with its application.

She explained that the BoCC doesn't have authority to deny development agreements on state or federal lands or to regulate activities or impacts for which no performance standards have been adopted. She also said its authority is preempted by federal or state law.

Following an executive session with county attorney John Baier, Board chair Don Suppes said commissioners have three options: grant the appeal, deny the appeal, or take the information under consideration and make a decision at the June 11 meeting. "I have heard nothing in the hearing for (CHC) to reverse the to reverse the decisions made so far," said Suppes. "I have spent time looking at our codes and Gunnison Energy's application for specific development. The code has been followed by our staff."

A hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday, June 19, at the Delta County Courthouse.

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North Fork
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Commissioners, Paonia, seismic exploration
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