The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is backing away from its method of regulating water discharged from coal-bed methane wells after two reports by independent consultants questioned the practice.

The method has been in use for a few years. The department decided that it was important enough to ask the state Environmental Quality Council, a governor-appointed board that approves the state's environmental rules and regulations, to approve the method as a formal rule when the council meets next week.
On Wednesday, the department withdrew the proposed rule. The department announced that it will instead convene a panel of experts to recommend ways to monitor drainages and prevent problems with soil salinity.

"We're kind of going back to the drawing board, is what it amounts to," said John Wagner, administrator of the department's Water Quality Division, on Thursday.
Coal-bed methane wells extract methane f rom coal seams by pumping large amounts of groundwater out of the coal and onto the surface. That depressurizes coal seams, causing methane to condense out of the groundwater much like bubbles of carbon dioxide inside a soda bottle that's been opened.

Most coal-bed methane development in Wyoming occurs in the Powder River Basin, where ranchers grow hay for their cattle in bottomlands and irrigated pastures. Millions of gallons of extracted groundwater has caused many of the arid region's ephemeral streams to flow year-round.

For some ranchers, that's helpful. Others have had problems with salt buildup in their hayfields.

"It's damaging the soil and the vegetation and it's going to be really hard to reclaim those areas," said Jill Morrison, an organizer for the Sheridan-based Powder River Basin Resource Council.

The department attempts to protect agriculture by regulating the salinity of groundwater discharged by coal-bed methane wells. The method the d epartment has developed compares the salinity of water discharged by coal-bed methane wells with the salinity of areas downstream from the wells.

But reports by two consultants hired by the Environmental Quality Council said the method isn't scientifically valid because it incorrectly assumes that salt in coal-bed methane water will increase soil salinity.

In fact, a variety of conditions - often involving water that's not especially salty - can create high soil salinity, consultants Jan Hendrickx and Bruce Buchanan wrote in their first report in May.

After visiting the Powder River Basin, the consultants this month released a second report that said the large volumes of coal-bed methane water have raised the water table in some areas, waterlogging pastures and causing them to become salty. They said the bigger need is to regulate the quantity of coal-bed methane water released.

Department officials, however, say they only have the authority to regulat e water quality. Water quantity, they say, falls under the purview of the State Engineer's Office.

"That's always been an issue with trying to regulate this coal-bed methane industry," Wagner said. "As these guys point out in their report, the real issue here is water quantity, not water quality."

Morrison disputed that. After all, she said, the department limits effluent discharged from sewage treatment plants.

"They don't want to address it so they use it as an excuse," Morrison said.

The department plans to continue using its method for regulating the salinity of coal-bed methane water while leaving the door open to revisit water-discharge permits issued under those procedures, department officials say.

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