All eyes on BLM over RMR groundwater drilling

We love our hot springs. They relax and heal, they entertain and delight, and their bubbling warmth is the basis of our economy.

We won’t tolerate anything that puts our hot springs at risk, and we face exactly that risk now.

Rocky Mountain Resources (RMR) is seeking a permit from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to drill five well holes up to 200 feet deep on the Transfer Trail mountainside.

Drilling these five holes is another step in RMR’s misguided effort to expand its existing 20-acre limestone quarry into a massive 321-acre mine, all on public land directly north of Glenwood Springs.

RMR’s stated intent is to gather data about the mountainside’s groundwater. It may sound reasonable, but in fact, it’s very risky.

Two reputable hydrology engineers say these well holes could puncture and disrupt the delicate network of cavern aquifers that feed our hot springs.

Worse yet, BLM has titled the pending permit a “CX,” or Categorical Exclusion. That means BLM is set up to issue this drilling permit to RMR without further public review or scientific analysis.

And, by the way, RMR has asked BLM for permission to retain the rock cores from the five holes “for exploration purposes.” This looks like a way to study the nature of the limestone deposit while avoiding a public review process and a Garfield County permit for mineral exploration.

In the October public comment period, some 250 individuals, businesses and organizations told BLM, “Not so fast.”

Our community expressed deep concerns about how drilling could impact the sensitive geothermal groundwater network connected to our hot springs.

People also voiced their worries about impacts to wildlife, winter range, Native American and pioneer cultural sites, and the Transfer Trail route itself.

And all comments opposed BLM’s intent to fast-track a drilling permit through a categorical exclusion.

In our comments for the Glenwood Springs Citizens’ Alliance, Jeff Peterson wrote, “The potential for serious interference with groundwater and hot springs, at a minimum, warrants detailed review by the agency, with full public review and analysis – not a truncated review and approval via a CX.”

Our elected officials took similar stands.

Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes wrote, “A CX is entirely inappropriate in this situation because of the potential for significant impacts, existing public controversy, uncertain effects and cumulative effects.”

Garfield County Commissioners Tom Jankovsky, John Martin and Mike Samson wrote, “To proceed with blind haste is to jeopardize our ecological wonders – and it is unnecessary, imprudent and inconsistent with government’s obligations under the law.”

Our community is united in saying the only acceptable route forward is for BLM to conduct a rigorous public review, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Too much is at stake, a point powerfully made in a joint letter to BLM from Steve Beckley, owner of Iron Mountain Hot Springs, and Kjell Mitchell, CEO of the Glenwood Hot Springs.

Beckley and Mitchell offer a sobering description of the risks posed by drilling to the geothermal springs, including changes in water flow, chemical balance, temperature and pressure.

A detailed analysis by BBA Water Consultants and West Sage Water Consultants of Englewood cites the potential for drilling to fracture underground water flow paths, to hit pressurized flows and cause surface blowouts, and for bore holes to contaminate groundwater caverns.

Any of these changes, Beckley and Mitchell write, “could destroy this vital community resource.”

“If this were to happen,” they state bluntly, “it is our community, its citizens and businesses, that will be left holding the bag, not RMR nor the government.”

Far too many questions remain about risks to our hot springs. BLM action to fast-track RMR’s drilling proposal under a categorical exclusion is inappropriate and unacceptable.

Now that the comment period is ended, our community is closely watching BLM. We hope our unified message, calling for extensive public review of this drilling request, is heard and respected.

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