Could mining activities put new subdivisions at risk?
A group of San Juan County residents from the Bridger Jack subdivision are concerned about drilling and mining operations near their homes and state that other county residents are also at risk.
The group has proposed a new ordinance that would regulate these operations within or adjacent to residential subdivisions. The proposal was the subject of a public hearing before San Juan County Commissioners on October 20.
The proposed ordinance would restrict mining within a residential subdivision and set up to a one-mile buffer on land adjacent to a subdivision.
A core of the problem is that many area land sales are for surface rights to the land, while oil, gas and mineral rights are retained or sold to another party. Some residents are surprised to learn that they do not own all the rights to the land that they purchase.
Two landowners in the 46-lot Bridger Jack subdivision south of Spanish Valley in northern San Juan County recently received notification from South American Minerals Incorporated that the company intended to explore for uranium and vanadium in their neighborhood. The company has received permission from the state division of oil, gas and mining for drilling on adjacent land.
Residents say the original plan had operations within 10 feet of existing water wells. The current proposed exploration would be within 1,400 feet of building lots.
One resident told Commissioners that the residents are “realists” who are not looking to drive out mining, but who are looking for a buffer. He added, “We can’t live there if they drill the land.”
It was reported that four new homes were scheduled to be built in the subdivision this fall, but construction was put on hold until they could figure out what was going to happen.
The County has received a number of written comments on the proposal, primarily from residents of the subdivision. They are working to build support for their proposal from the residents of other subdivisions in northern San Juan County, including Flat Iron Mesa, Pack Creek Ranch, Crimson Vista, Wilson Arch and Kane Creek Canyon subdivisions. It is reported that drilling is taking place within one mile of a residence in the Eastland area.
The Bridger Jack residents said that they were frustrated after talking to state officials, who expressed sympathy, but added that there was nothing the state could do. They said that Kevin Carter, of the State Trust lands, suggested that the mining company may be willing to sell the lease. They added that the company wants “hundreds of thousands of dollars for the lease.”
Rick Lamb said commissioners are hearing from just the first wave of many proposed drilling operations and added, “Many other subdivisions will be affected in the future.”
Phil Glaze, who said he has spent $4 million to develop his Wilson Arch project, asked Commissioners to help residents protect their investments. Glaze said, “We are not being ridiculous. These people have spent so much money building these homes. They are looking for their Commissioners to give them a little protection. There is lots of open space in this county.”
When Glaze asked Commissioners about the current policy, county building inspector Bruce Bunker said that the subdivisions are zoned A1, where drilling is allowed.
The residents are concerned about dust contamination and water problems that could result from mining operations too close to their homes.
They said that studies show risk is highest for residents who live within a mile of these operations, adding that risks to residents near operations are greater than risks to workers at the operations.
After exploring the options, they request a one-mile buffer around platted subdivisions to protect residents.
Chris McAnany, an attorney from Grand Junction, said that San Juan County needs a policy to deal with these issues, so he submitted a draft ordinance to the county.
McAnany said that the primary objective is to prohibit mining within a residential subdivision, “because uranium and vanadium mining is incompatible with a residential subdivision.”
He added that he would like to see a minimum margin of safety of one mile from a subdivision, saying that studies show that exposure and contamination problems are directly related to proximity. The proposal calls for a conditional-use permit if any proposed action is within 400 feet of an A1 subdivision.
McAnany said that the Bridger Jack subdivision is entirely dependent on its 12 existing wells, which would be threatened if mining operations are too close.
Commissioner Lynn Stevens said that the county cannot pass an ordinance that is not enforceable. He pointed out that most of the land in San Juan County is federally owned and creating a buffer zone leaves a gap if the adjacent property is owned by the federal government.
Bunker said that state laws allow for two owners of property: one for surface rights and one for mineral rights. He said that restricting access to the legitimate rights of mineral rights holders creates problems and asked if mineral rights holders need to be reimbursed for the loss of these rights.
One landowner said, “There is no way to have it both ways. You are going to blow it for residential developments if you try to have it both ways.”
Another said, “The government has the power to legislate public health and safety. No one has a right to pollute his neighbor’s property.”
Commissioner Bruce Adams said, “We are learning as much as we can about it so we can make an informed decision. We will carefully consider every comment that we receive.”