Austin, TX- Eradicating one of the largest black-tailed prairie dog colonies in the Southwest may no longer be the prescribed solution for groundwater contamination at the Lubbock Land Application Site (LLAS), according to the latest correspondence from the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC). This new determination, made in a letter released today by Texas Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Texas PEER), marks a complete reversal of the state's position in a mushrooming dispute in this west Texas community that is starting to attract national attention.
On June 3, 2002, TNRCC officials sent a violation notice to Lubbock Mayor Marc McDougal blaming the prairie dogs for "creat[ing] conditions which could possibly lead to groundwater contamination." TNRCC gave city leaders sixty days to draft a compliance plan that would "control the prairie dog population across the LLAS."
The order caused considerable consternation as federal wildlife officials and conservationists who objected to incorrect assumptions and an absence of any scientific corroboration supporting TNRCC's determination. Seven weeks later, TNRCC began to backpedal. In a letter dated July 22, TNRCC investigator Patrick Cooke claimed that the agency "has never stated that prairie dogs have caused groundwater contamination at this site."
Instead, pollution of the water table came from "application of treated sewage to the land." The state agency no longer considers the removal of prairie dogs to be the only satisfactory mitigation measure. "TNRCC will be attentive to all possible solutions, providing that protection of the groundwater resources beneath the Lubbock Land Application Site is achieved."
Despite this disavowal by TNRCC, the agency has not yet amended their notice of violation to the city. As late as last week, Lubbock City Council Member Frank Morrisson sent the following E-mail: "Like it or not, TNRCC (a very powerful state agency) has told the City of Lubbock we must remove the prairie dogs from the land application site. We don't see any flexibility in their directive."
"The notion that prairie dogs are causing contamination is just plain loony," said Texas PEER Director Scott Royder. "When asked to justify their position, all TNRCC officials could do was shrug, " continued Royder, who noted ranchers who graze cattle on the LLAS have for years attempted to justify removing the prairie dogs. "This smacks of a shady deal between the city and compliant state regulators."
"If the prairie dogs are indeed out of the crosshairs of Texas state officials, Lubbock officials haven't gotten that memo yet, said Eric Wingerter, PEER's National Field Director. "What's more, TNRCC has yet to justify this nonsensical plan with anything more than a grin."
The black-tailed prairie dog is a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. Texas PEER has asked TNRCC to clarify its new position with Lubbock officials.