KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Cheyenne Bottoms, a central Kansas site that includes internationally recognized wetlands, is "not fully functioning" and could become more threatened by additional oil drilling in the area, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"It's death by a thousand paper cuts," said Heather Whitlaw, field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service, which opposes a recent request by a Kansas company seeking to drill on wetlands in Cheyenne Bottoms, a 41,000-acre land sink in central Kansas that's the largest interior marsh in the U.S. and where about 250,000 waterfowl stop during seasonal migrations.
"We believe that the cumulative impacts of multiple oil well drilling and production sites along with related activities will result in substantial and unacceptable impacts to an aquatic resource of national importance," Whitlaw said in a recent letter to the Kansas City district of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is reviewing the permit request. The Corps of Engineers has the authority to issue construction permits on U.S. wetlands, which are considered important in part because they serve several purposes, including floodwater storage and habitat for fish and wildlife.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates about 100 million wetland acres remain in the lower 48 states and about 60,000 of those acres are lost each year to such things as farming and development.
Cheyenne Bottoms and the nearby Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, which is another wetlands site, host more than 90 percent of the world's population of two species of sandpipers and hundreds of thousands of geese and cranes, including the endangered whooping crane, according to the Ramsar Convention on International Wetlands, a global treaty that provides a framework for wetlands conservation.
"They're hugely important for migratory birds," said Mark Frazier, regulatory chief for the Army Corps of Engineers' Kansas City district, which is expected to have a decision on the permits by the end of the year. "So we're aware of that status."
Apart from its objection to the new drilling permits in Cheyenne Bottoms, the Fish and Wildlife Service also has concerns about the impact of nearby oil production outside the Bottoms, which is on the state's list of impaired waters because of siltation and oxygen depletion, Whitlaw said.
"They're not fully functioning," she said of Cheyenne Bottoms.
Whitlaw said based on recent filings with the Kansas Corporation Commission, which regulates the Kansas oil and gas industry, more requests for drilling in the Cheyenne Bottoms area are likely. Over the last year, the KCC has received more than 140 notices of intent to drill in Barton County, where the wetlands are located. The FWS estimates that as of late July about 60 of those requests were in the 11 townships containing either the Bottoms or two of the main creeks that feed into the Bottoms.
Oil production in the Bottoms' watershed would "likely contribute to the continuation of these issues in the future and may prevent the effectiveness of some solutions," she said in her letter to the Corps of Engineers.
Charles Ramsay, co-owner of H&C Oil Co. of Plainville, said he has been "crucified" for applying for the permit to build the drill site in Cheyenne Bottoms, but he said he has another well in the area that has performed well for decades without causing damage.
"We're not looking to destroy anything, harm anything," he said.