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Drilling rig vexes school camp

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SCOFIELD, Carbon County — Fifth-grade teacher David Cox likes to lead students in an exercise at Clear Creek Outdoor Education Camp during which they lie in the snow and try not to make a peep.

The goal is to experience total silence, absolute stillness. The students usually last about two minutes — forever for a preteen.

"It's something we can't get down in the valley," said Cox, who teaches at Lehi's Sego Lily Elementary.

Such quiet hasn't been experienced since October, when a contracted crew for Marion Energy Inc. started natural gas drilling on a rig a few hundred yards from the students' sleeping quarters at the camp.

In addition to noise, Cox, a former state lawmaker, said bright lights from the 24-hour drilling operation make star-gazing impossible. And sometimes the area around the drilling site smells strange.

But those aren't the only concerns. Camp staff question the safety of the 5,100 students a year who visit the overnight, year-around camp owned by the 56,000-student Alpine School District.

Answers to their questions about the safety thus far have been elusive, they say. And concerns were heightened when the state cited the company for environmental-regulation violations.

State regulators found a series of environmental violations at the site and scheduled a March 14 meeting in Price with district employees, energy company representatives, including Marion Energy consultant and former U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen.

But Michael Hebertson, manager of enforcement and hearings for the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, said he cancelled the meeting because it was unnecessary.

"The company was more than willing to solve (issues raised by the violations) through the administrative process," Hebertson said.

Another meeting to discuss issues surrounding the drilling site is tentatively scheduled for today at the Salt Lake office of an attorney who represents Marion Energy.

An official from the energy company's Texas office did not return phone calls to the Deseret Morning News. The company's Salt Lake attorney also did not return a phone call to the newspaper.

"That (notice of violation) has nine specific issues under five different rules," said Jim Springer, spokesman for the oil, mining and gas division.

He said the violations ranged from failing to properly dispose of drilling clay to spilled trash and diesel outside the 2-acre drilling site.

"All of them were classified as pretty minor," Springer said, and not serious enough for a hearing before the state's Board of Oil, Gas and Mining, which can levy fines.

Most violations have been fixed — especially after Marion Energy replaced drilling equipment on Jan. 23 and the drill supervisors on March 8, Springer said.

Both the equipment and workers are contracted by Marion.

The camp is on 600 acres in the Clear Creek area of the Manti Mountains, two miles south of the resort town of Scofield.

Marion leases mineral rights from Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration and other owners of subsurface rights in the area.

Marion is drilling diagonally to an underground reserve of natural gas, and will pay SITLA and other subsurface owners 12.5 percent of the revenue it receives selling natural gas to a pipeline company, said LaVonne Garrison, SITLA's assistant director for oil and gas.

In 2005, the school district denied Marion's request to begin drilling but later hammered out an agreement with the energy company after learning of a provision in state law that would allow Marion to work with SITLA to begin drilling.

The agreement allowed the district to maintain some control of the drilling. Specifically, the district was able to prevent drilling in an environmentally sensitive canyon.

The district steered Marion to the current site, which is less harmful to the environment, said Rob Smith, Alpine School District business administrator.

While the state regulates the fenced, 2-acre drilling site, it appears that state law does not specifically address safety issues for the area around the site.

As the school district and energy company discussed an agreement for the drilling, "safety of children was evident in all discussions but not referenced in the agreement, only that the operator was liable for all items resulting from negligence," Smith said.

In the land-use agreement, Marion Energy is allowed to drill two holes from its rig and continue drilling until it finds gas.

The school district negotiated to receive from Marion Energy $4,000 for any damages to the land, Smith said.

The agreement also states that Marion is to clear several areas of the district's property for future expansion of the camp, and construct and maintain a secondary access road to the drilling site, Smith said

Marion Energy also is to provide Clear Creek students with educational materials about oil and gas drilling and host a field trip for students in the summer program to nearby wells.

The educational materials and field trip have not yet been provided.

However, in a Jan. 29 letter to the school district from Keri Clarke, a Marion vice president, the company stated it was preparing an educational brochure that will be easy for children to understand. The company also proposed field trips after the winter season.

"We're not tree huggers," said camp principal Boyd McAffee said. "We're not the Sierra Club. We visit the (nearby coal) mine. But what this is is an embarrassment to what we're trying to teach (students)."

E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com