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Ute Indian Tribe wants EPA suit against firm dropped

Published: Sunday, Jan. 9 2011 11:13 p.m. MST

FORT DUCHESNE, Uintah County — The leadership of the Ute Indian Tribe has asked the federal government to drop its lawsuit against a Denver-based energy company for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act.

The officials made their request in a Jan. 5 letter to James Martin, regional administrator for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Denver, asking him to end the government's suit against QEP Field Services.

"The purpose of this letter is to formally request that the EPA dismiss its suit and work to otherwise resolve this matter in the most amicable way possible in the best interests of all parties," wrote Thomas W. Fredericks, the tribe's general counsel.

The letter was written as a result of a Dec. 20 meeting between the Ute Tribe Business Committee, which serves as the tribe's executive and legislative branches, and representatives from QEP. During that meeting the Business Committee voted unanimously to request the dismissal of the lawsuit against the company formerly known as Questar Gas Management.

"To continue costly litigation that only benefits attorneys is not in the best interest of the Ute Indian Tribe or tribal lands," wrote Business Committee Chairman Richard Jenks Jr. and Committee member Stewart Pike in their own letter to Martin.

Eric Dady, QEP vice president and general counsel, said the company "did not know that the tribal leaders would draft this letter, nor did we request that they draft it."

"It was a surprise to us," he said.

In February 2008, federal prosecutors filed a 49-page complaint in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City alleging that QEP had failed to control toxic air emissions at its Coyote Wash, Chapita Island, Wonsits Valley, and River Bend natural gas compressor stations.

Prosecutors claimed the five compressor stations emitted benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylene and hexane — toxic air pollutants typically contained in emissions from oil and natural gas production facilities. The compressor engines at these facilities also produced formaldehyde as a byproduct, the complaint states.

All six of these chemicals are known to cause cancer and birth defects.

In defending the suit, attorneys for QEP challenged the federal government's jurisdiction over its compressor stations. They argued that the area where the stations are located — an area established as the Uncompahgre Reservation in 1882 — is no longer part of the larger Uintah-Ouray Reservation, and therefore should be regulated by the state officials, not the EPA.

The challenge to tribal sovereignty prompted Ute officials to consider banishing the company from the reservation, which led to a separate legal fight in federal court. That fight ended after QEP dropped its argument and its president and CEO, Charles B. Stanley, issued a public apology to tribal members for the company's claim against its boundaries.

The sovereignty question and QEP's efforts to defend itself, however, remain a concern for tribal leaders, according to Fredericks' letter. Jenks and Pike, in their letter, claim the EPA caused the energy company to adopt its defense strategy.

"It is the position of the members of the Business Committee of the Ute Indian Tribe that the EPA's actions, as the plaintiff in the case, is ultimately responsible for the challenge to our boundaries on the Uncompahgre Reservation," the men wrote.

In his letter, Fredericks said tribal leaders and QEP officials are now working on a joint federal court motion to "reiterate and affirm QEP's position in not challenging the Ute Tribe's existence, boundaries, diminishment or disestablishment of the tribe's reservation."

Rich Mylott, spokesman for the EPA in Denver, said the agency had received Fredericks' letter and is reviewing it.

"(We) anticipate future communication with the tribe," he said. "EPA's primary concern is the protection of public health and the environment, on both the reservation and in the Uinta Basin as a whole."

Pike told the Uintah Basin Standard he believes the lawsuit has gone on "too dang long and cost a lot of money."

"The EPA is detrimental to the development of the economy on our reservation," he added.

E-mail: geoff@ubstandard.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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