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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

A Town Hall Or Clean Water? Bluff Faced Tough Choice In Weighing Fracking Permits

A pump jack at dusk surrounded by sagebrush
Kate Groetzinger
A pump jack on the Navajo Nation in San Juan County. The county was the fourth highest producer of oil and gas in the state in 2019.

The Bluff Town Council, tasked with overseeing growth in the recently incorporated community, recently faced a quandary.

The question: Is it more important for the town to have a public building — to provide services like vehicle registration and woodcutting permits — or ensure clean drinking water?

For Bluff Mayor Ann Leppanen, the choice was clear.

“I’ve struggled and struggled and struggled with the conflict between oil and gas money coming into the community,” she said. “But if we don’t have water, we don’t have anything.”

The five-member Town Council voted in a special meeting last week to send a letter to the Bureau of Land Management opposing the permitting of two oil wells located on public land just a few miles outside of town. 

The Town Council questioned whether the BLM has fully analyzed the risks associated with the wells, which would use hydraulic fracturing or fracking, to extract oil and gas. That process involves pumping a water-based solution of sand and chemicals deep underground to break up oil- and gas-containing rock formations. 

Members raised concerns about the potential effects of fracking, from increased seismic activity to potential water pollution. But opposing it could put their application for a $500,000 grant from the Permanent Community Impact Fund — to buy a town hall — at risk.

The impact fund collects royalty money from drilling and mineral extraction on public land in Utah and distributes that revenue to communities in counties affected by those activities. It is overseen by the Utah Community Impact Board, or CIB. The board includes officials from Uintah, Sevier, Beaver and Daggett counties, as well as San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams. 

Elsewhere in Utah, towns have been threatened with the loss of CIB funding because of local opposition to resource extraction. And, now, a similar situation is playing out in Bluff. In the meeting, Leppanen referred to a conversation she had with Adams, who she said “has a lot of influence” on the board. 

“[Adams] said, ‘If you oppose oil and gas drilling, essentially what you’re saying to CIB is you don’t support oil and gas drilling at all, and why would a board approve a town that opposes the source of their money?’”

Adams confirmed this in an interview with KUER last week, adding that the board does not have an official policy related to withholding grant money from entities that oppose drilling, but it could still affect how board members vote. 

“I’m not trying to threaten her,” he said. “I’m just trying to be honest with her. The board is sensitive to the people that are opposed to [drilling], and it might affect the way they vote.” 

A representative for the CIB confirmed that the distribution of funds is up to the discretion of board members. 

The Town of Bluff, which incorporated in 2018, owns a large gymnasium and senior center. Right now, the Town Council meets in the gym. Leppanen said the town has been planning to buy the Bluff Elementary School building when the school moves into new facilities this year, but the town doesn’t have the funding to do so. 

“We’d like to set up alliances with social security and provide woodcutting permits, drivers licenses, and vehicle registration, but that’s going to take space,” Leppanen said. 

The Town Council submitted an application to the CIB for a $500,000 grant to buy the building and renovate it. And while that’s one of the Town Council’s top priorities, their concerns about the drilling applications ultimately outweighed it. 

In their letter to the BLM asking it not to grant the permits, the Town Council raised concerns that a United States Geological Survey study — commissioned by the BLM — acknowledges the permittee’s intention to frack but does not include fracking in its analysis on Bluff’s water.  As the letter states: 

Letter from town council

In an email, a BLM spokesperson said the study did, in fact, analyze fracking but could not immediately provide more details.

Leppanen said she hopes the CIB will provide the money to buy the building through a grant, because the town can’t afford to take on a $500,000 loan right now. She added that the town shouldn’t be punished for trying to keep its residents safe. 

“I’m not saying no to drilling. I’m saying no to drilling in an aquifer. There’s a difference,” Leppanen said. “Perhaps other people looking at our application will see it differently. We took a position for our community.”

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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