Shouldering the burden | TSLN.com

Shouldering the burden

Ed Swartz

Photo by Ted Wood

The pressures of politics, a good dose of misguided science, and the demands of an immensely profitable coalbed methane industry all come together here on my ranch in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

Actually, these forces meet on a once productive draw a few miles from my house. Through all the years my dad ranched this place – in fact, ever since my grandfather homesteaded it – our cows have thrived on this grass. In some areas the meadows aren’t more than three or four acres, and in others areas they’re over 50, but spring runoff and occasional summer rains always brought thick stands of good grass and alfalfa hay. Boxelder trees along the draw would shade and shelter the cattle.

Ask any rancher up in these parts: Patches of prairie meadows like this have become part of what make our operations profitable. Generations of cows, and generations of ranchers like me, have come to depend on them.

But in the last decade we’ve had the devil’s own time convincing the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality of that. Here in the Cowboy State, you’d think cowboys might have some kind of say in what happens to their land. More often than not, you’d be wrong. The DEQ, through its so-called Agriculture Protection Policy, has permitted the CBM industry to discharge huge volumes of salt-laden water onto our low-lying meadows that has caused soil erosion, killed the native grass, alfalfa and hundreds of trees, and interfered with our water rights to the natural flow on these drainages.

Oil and gas companies must pump and dump a lot of water to get their coalbed methane but instead of treating the water or using it where it’s needed they discharge it downstream, wasting it and making a shambles of our operations.

DEQ decided a while back that it needed a better interpretation of the Agriculture Protection Policy – and rightfully – but then it gave all the high cards to industry.

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Ranchers like me have been trying to get DEQ to see the light ever since these discharges started, but version after version of this policy has gone through DEQ’s clunky, industry-friendly machinery and labeled our smaller draws and meadows – often the heart of our ranches – as “insignificant” and not worth protecting.

A load of other prescriptions in the proposed policy would allow increasing levels of salts and pollutants to irreparably damage our soils, native grasses and alfalfa.

Now DEQ is presenting this bad policy to the Environmental Quality Council (EQC) as a permanent rule. I hope the Council will see it for what it really is: A license to damage our land and take our properties and profits.

All over the Powder River Basin, we see time and time again where our DEQ serves the CBM industry at the cost to landowners. Here on my ranch, they’re as good as taking profits right out of my pocket so industry can dispose of its polluted water cheaply and easily.

These “protection” policies don’t protect anything – unless you count oil and gas revenues – which is where politics, profits and science come in. Whenever ranchers like me raise a few questions about how these policies will work to actually protect agricultural uses of land, the industry trots out one of its paid pet scientists to assure anyone who’ll listen that we needn’t worry. And most often, the ones who are listening are the ones who are supposed to be working to protect the land and all of its uses.

Why DEQ listens to these high paid industry stooges is beyond me. We’ve got plenty of relevant studies done by our own university scientists and USDA soils experts that raise too many questions to ignore. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that salty poor quality water destroys grass and soils.

But sound science needs a lot of support when it goes up against an industry that’s making money hand over fist, and pouring revenues into the treasury for politicians to spend. The Environmental Quality Council is getting ready to issue a decision on the Agriculture Protection Rule. All I can hope is that the EQC places value on sound science and considers the impacts to private property owned by a Wyoming Citizen as it makes the final call. I hope the EQC will see that making landowners shoulder the burden of industry’s pollution is not at all what the Wyoming Environmental Quality Act intended.

The day-to-day experiences of ranchers like me, and my father and his father before me, tell us that.

ed swartz is a lifelong campbell county rancher. his ranch has been in his family for 104 years and the 3rd, 4th and 5th generations currently live and work on the ranch.