Attorney: Gas panel’s ruling is victory for citizens of GarCo

An attorney for Garfield County landowners is hailing a Colorado Court of Appeals ruling holding that they are entitled to a state hearing over efforts to drill for natural gas near the Project Rulison underground nuclear blast site.

Thursday’s ruling reversed a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit against the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and EnCana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc.

Plaintiffs Cary and Ruth Weldon and Wesley and Marcia Kent, along with the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and Western Colorado Congress, contend commission rules barring them from seeking a hearing over drilling-permit approvals violate state laws.

“I think that in the current world, that more citizen participation in government is what we really need, and this decision opens the door to much broader participation in government,” said their attorney, Luke Danielson.

The Weldons and Kents own property in the area of a 1969 underground nuclear blast carried out by the federal government south of Rulison in an unsuccessful experimental attempt to safely produce natural gas. Several companies have begun drilling in the area.

The closest well is just over a half-mile away; EnCana’s are about three miles away. Some residents worry the operations could create health dangers by tapping areas of radioactive contamination.

Defendants in the case questioned whether the plaintiffs even had standing to sue. But the three-judge appeals court panel noted in its opinion that the oil and gas commission requires hearings itself if permits are sought within a half-mile of the blast site.

“The Commission’s half-mile radius may prove to be an entirely rational point at which to draw the line. But, at this threshold stage, we cannot dismiss the fears of those persons residing near but outside that line as so unreasonable as to justify a denial of standing to be heard in court,” the panel wrote.

EnCana spokesman Doug Hock said he didn’t know if his company had decided yet whether to appeal the matter to the state Supreme Court. He declined to comment further.

Stan Garnett, a Democratic candidate for state attorney general, said the oil and gas commission was guided by the advice of the office of Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican. He questioned Suthers’ commitment to the welfare of the public and Colorado’s natural resources.

Mike Saccone, a spokesman for Suthers’ office, said the position of the office reflected the position of the oil and gas commission.

“We were simply representing our clients and their views,” he said.

David Neslin, director of the oil and gas commission, could not be reached for comment.

The appeals court held that Neslin’s consideration of the plaintiffs’ concerns in lieu of a hearing was insufficient. The commission said in a brief to the appeals court that requiring the types of hearings sought by the plaintiffs would “overwhelm” it.


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