Residents concerned about Talladega forest drilling plan
by Patrick McCreless
Apr 18, 2012 | 8139 views | 26 26 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Patty Duran has had the Talladega National Forest as her back yard for the last 16 years.

The Delta resident says she pumps her entire water supply from a 180-foot deep lake underneath her home.

Now there are plans to allow drilling for possible oil and gas on forest land about a mile behind her house. Duran does not know how drilling could affect her home or water supply, and she does not want to find out.

“I’m surrounded by the Talladega National Forest … it makes me kind of cautious about what they’re doing,” Duran said. “My biggest concern is our drinking water.”

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, which manages federal land and its resources, recently announced its intention to sell oil and gas leases in June for parcels totaling more than 43,000 acres of federal land in Alabama, mostly in the Talladega National Forest. The decision has some conservation groups and area residents concerned about the possible environmental impacts of drilling. However, federal officials say they will conduct detailed environmental studies before drilling is allowed and that it is unlikely much drilling will take place at all.

“We’re committed to developing oil and gas resources in an environmentally sound manner,” said Bruce Dawson, BLM field manager for the southeastern states. “Everything we do has to go through the National Environmental Policy Act.”

Signed into law in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, establishes policy and goals for the protection, maintenance and enhancement of the environment. Dawson said the BLM had performed an environmental assessment for the land up for lease and that another one would be conducted if and when a company buys a lease.

“They have to submit an application to drill and then a separate environmental assessment is done,” Dawson said. “That is when we get into the details of what the drilling will do.”

Some areas proposed for lease contain, or are near, environmental resources such as the Pinhoti National Recreation Trail, the Chinnabee Silent Trail, Talladega Scenic Drive, Cheaha Mountain and Rebecca Mountain. They also contain waterways including Choccolocco, Cheaha and Shoal creeks, along with other tributaries to the Coosa, Tallapoosa and Cahaba rivers.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, a regional nonprofit conservation organization, submitted a letter of protest Monday to the BLM, demanding Alabama’s national forests be taken off the list for use in oil and gas drilling. The letter argues the BLM is relying on outdated environmental analyses done by the U.S. Forest Service in 2004 as part of the revised management plan for Alabama's national forests. It states that among other deficiencies, the analyses fail to assess the environmental impacts of drilling using high-volume hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking.

Fracking is a form of gas drilling in which millions of gallons of water and chemicals are injected underground to fracture shale and release natural gas. The technique has garnered much controversy in recent years due to its supposed harmful effects on ground water.

However, like the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service will conduct environmental surveys to ensure wildlife will be protected, said Tammy Truitt, public affairs officer for the U.S. Forestry Service office in Montgomery. In a Tuesday email to The Star, Truitt said the Forest Service first gives the BLM approval to lease land for gas and oil drilling. The Forest Service does so after first ensuring it owns the mineral rights of the land in question and that the land has not been withdrawn from leasing because of wilderness designation or the presence of buildings or campgrounds, or other reasons.

“And if a plan of operations is filed with the BLM by the company holding the lease, then the Forest Service conducts a site-specific NEPA analysis to evaluate the environmental effects of the plan of operations,” Truitt said. “The plan of operations would disclose details such as a proposal to use hydrological fracturing to extract natural gas. Public involvement is sought at this stage of the NEPA analysis and the public is given the opportunity to comment on the specific items in the operating plan.”

Terry Beecham, who lives in Piedmont near another parcel of national forest land up for lease, said he was not worried about possible drilling near his property.

“I would not have a problem with it as long as they do it safely,” said Beecham, who has lived in the same house for more than 20 years.

Dawson noted that it was unlikely much of the land up for lease would be drilled anyway.

“Just because something goes to lease does not mean it will go into production,” Dawson said. “It could be because it’s a dry hole or it could be because the economic conditions are not right.”

Truitt also said it was unlikely much of the land would be drilled.

“Often, lands that are leased never have oil or gas wells drilled on them during the life of the lease,” Truitt said. “To date, on the national forests in Alabama, few wells have been drilled in the forest and consequently most leases expire without activity during their life.”

Truitt said there is “no new information that would suggest that oil or gas deposits underlie the national forest in Alabama.”

Lori Fuester of Bynum, however, does not want there to be any chance that drilling could occur and hurt the national forest. Though she does not live near the forest, she and her family routinely visit there for recreation.

“We use Cheaha to escape,” Fuester said. “We just bought a Jeep to get to the backroads to Sweetwater Lake. But if they start drilling and stuff, they could ruin the area.”

Calhoun County Commissioner Tim Hodges, whose district contains portions of the land up for lease, said he did not know about the drilling plans.

“I figure I’d have heard about something like that before this point,” Hodges said. “But just off the top of my head, I would not be for that, based on that Talladega National Forest is a national forest. But I certainly need to get more information on this, not just for myself but for everybody.”

Residents who would like to voice their opinions about the gas and oil land leasing should contact the Bureau of Land Management at 601-977-5400 or 703-440-1710.

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star

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