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Red Gap Forest Service Study

Red Gap Ranch with the San Francisco Peaks in the distance.

The Flagstaff City Council hopes to clarify the city's stance on an agreement they entered into allowing Desert Mountain Energy to access city property for helium and hydrocarbon that could be present beneath the surface.

The land in question, Red Gap Ranch, was purchased by the city with taxpayer money for a different resource also found beneath the surface — potential drinking water. City voters approved a $15 million bond for the purchase to extend the city's water resources, with city officials only spending $6.9 million for the land and water access in 2005.

The city is holding a council meeting on Tuesday about a Desert Mountain Energy press release that city officials say "overstates" the city's commitment to their agreement that included exploration and production, according to the online council agenda.

Alicyn Gitlin, conservation coordinator at the Sierra Club, is concerned about the city's lack of transparency and communication on the mining and exploration prospect, which she believes could risk damaging the city’s water.

"It’s a very big violation of the public trust by not including public input and notification prior to making a decision like this that could affect our future water supply," Gitlin said.

Red Gap Ranch is located east of Flagstaff, south of the Navajo Nation and adjacent to the I-40 highway and has not yet been developed for city use.

Jessica Drum, spokesperson for the City of Flagstaff, encouraged people to attend the council meeting for further information.

The Desert Mountain Energy press release and focus for the concern states: “The parties agree to work together to limit the environmental impact of the work and production programs whilst allowing for the successful extraction of valuable resources.”

Olian Irwin, CEO for Desert Mountain Energy, said he stands by the information in the press release as accurate, but said there is always a possibility of misinterpretation.

Irwin also alleged that the company had no intention to build a well on the city's land or damage the city's water supply, despite the press release stating it could allow for hydrocarbon resource development. Hydrocarbons can include multiple different compounds but often occur in petroleum and natural gas.

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"We won’t do a well for helium if there's any danger of contaminating the water supply at all," Irwin said. "It's just not going to happen."

A city council report from mid-January explains that the city will only allow seismic testing and mining if both Desert Mountain Energy and the city agreed to pursue the project.

“The memorandum of understanding: expresses the parties’ desire to explore possibilities for helium exploration and mining if mutually beneficial and to cooperatively work together,” the memo to the city council explained.

The agreement details the use of seismic testing to explore the presence for helium. Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, said he is also concerned with how little public input has been allowed on the project, which he feels might endanger the Red Gap Ranch property.

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"It's bad public policy," McKinnon said. "Secondly, a question arises, how does facilitating hydrocarbon exploration and development fit with the city’s new climate action plan?”

Desert Mountain Energy describes itself as a producer of helium, oil and gas on their website. Irwin alleges they included hydrocarbon in the agreement, because other gases and minerals can be found while exploring for helium.

"There's no intent, this is not about looking for oil wells," Irwin said. "Maybe that will be clarified with an amendment to the agreement."

City officials also recommend revising the agreement to clarify their perspective, according to the council agenda item.

“Any decisions or forward path by the city would be fully vetted with the council and public to achieve a complete understanding of the process to do any extraction, the environmental impacts, water quality impacts, and other factors that would be related to any decision in moving forward should any helium resource be discovered,” the city agenda said.

Helium is a nonrenewable resource and is used in items like computer hard drives and MRI machines as coolant.

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Scott Buffon can be reached at sbuffon@azdailysun.com, on Twitter @scottbuffon or by phone at (928) 556-2250.

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