Crestone Eagle, June 2008:
Freedom of Information Act reveals possible
improper influence on Baca Natíl Wildlife Refuge Draft EA
by Ceal Smith
While the public awaits a decision on Canadian
energy company Lexam Explorations, Inc.’s proposal to
drill two 14,000’ oil and gas wells in the Baca National
Wildlife Refuge, documents released through a Freedom of Information
Act (FOIA) request suggest that the Canadian “wildcat”
company has unduly influenced the environmental analysis of
its drilling proposal required under the National Environmental
Policy Act (NEPA).
The Citizens for San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition
(WPC) filed a FOIA request on December 11, 2007 to obtain
communications related to the Lexam Corporation’s exploration
and drilling activities on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge.
The request sought communications between the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Lexam, the USFWS and ENSR Corporation,
the contractor for the draft Environmental Assessment (EA),
and ENRS Corporation and Lexam.
Under FOIA law, agencies are required to respond to a request
within 10 working days. The WPC received a partial response
of 6 pdf files from USFWS on April 1, 2008, more than 100
days after a response was due. The letter from Regional FOIA
Officer Cathy Willis states “there are additional documents
not included in this response that are still under review”
and that USFWS has withheld two emails containing “Solicitor’s
comments on [the] Baca EA” under attorney/client privilege.
Analysis of the documents by WPC staff confirms that critical
communications are missing. Although a complete set of records
is needed to confirm, the partial record provides a strong
indication that Lexam Corporation attorney David Bailey and
the Department of Interior Solicitor Steve Hoffman worked
in concert to avoid difficult questions raised by local USFWS
personnel, ENRS biologists and the public during the development
of the draft EA.
A recent Government Accountability Office report confirms
that in recent years, persons in the USFWS have pushed a pro-industry
agenda by sending internal USFWS documents to industry representatives,
and then altering scientific conclusions of USFWS scientists
for political reasons. Because internal agency records which
are normally protected from release were sent to industry
representatives, the records must now be disclosed to the
public under FOIA.
In order to vindicate WPC’s right of full access to
USFWS records, the Energy Minerals Law Center filed an appeal
with the US Department of Interior on behalf of the WPC on
May 12. The basis of the appeal is that USFWS did not provide
a response to the WPC FOIA request in a timely manner nor
did they provide an explanation for the delay or a description
of the documents still under review. The FOIA response also
did not contain a description of the search as required. Lastly,
the WPC maintains that all communication between Lexam and
the USFWS, particularly the Lexam attorney’s comments
on early, “internal” USFWS drafts of the EA, and
all other documents being withheld should be immediately released
to the public. The USFWS documents released so far are posted
on the web at: slvwater.org under “press releases”.
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