Image: Part of San Juan Basin
USGS
Areas within the San Juan Basin in New Mexico include this part of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
updated 4/30/2009 1:31:25 PM ET 2009-04-30T17:31:25

Environmentalists are taking aim again at the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, accusing the agencies in a lawsuit of failing to curb air pollution in the San Juan Basin — one of the largest natural gas fields in the nation.

WildEarth Guardians, Dine CARE and Carson Forest Watch filed their lawsuit Wednesday in federal court. It's the latest in a string of protests and other complaints filed over the past year regarding the impacts of energy development on the region's air quality.

"These agencies are turning their backs while the San Juan Basin chokes on pollution," said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians' climate and energy program director. "It's time to start confronting the impacts of dirty energy development."

The lawsuit targets the BLM's decision to lease 28,510 acres through three separate lease auctions in 2008. The groups contend the decision could lead to the development of 712 new oil and gas wells with no safeguards for limiting ground-level ozone.

It also targets the Forest Service's decision regarding surface management of gas leasing and development on nearly 5,000 acres of the Jicarilla Ranger District. The groups claim the decision clears the way for more than 700 new wells.

The Forest Service did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Tony Herrell, the BLM's deputy state director for minerals, said Wednesday he could not comment on the lawsuit. However, he said the agency prepared an environmental impact statement and an air quality model before approving a resource management plan for the area.

Herrell added that air pollution is a complex global issue and that not all countries have regulations as stringent as the United States.

"The fact of the matter is the less (energy) that we produce in the United States, the more that comes in from foreign sources, which actually contributes to additional greenhouse gases," he said.

Nichols agreed the problem is widespread, but he said the United States needs to take the lead in limiting emissions.

"If we can't deal with our own air pollution problem, then there's no hope for the world," Nichols said. "First off, we need to start taking more responsibility for our own backyard and then work through the appropriate channels to cooperate with other countries and deal with not just interstate transport, but international transport of pollution."

The lawsuit follows the release Wednesday of a report by the American Lung Association that grades counties across America based on air quality measurements that state and local agencies reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency between 2005 and 2007.

According to the report, some of New Mexico's most populous counties — Bernalillo, Dona Ana and San Juan — received failing grades when it came to the number of days with high ozone levels. Ozone, the primary component of smog, can irritate the respiratory system, reduce lung capacity and aggravate asthma.

The grades improved when it came to particle pollution. San Juan County received an A, Bernalillo County followed with a B and Dona Ana County earned a C.

The report said Farmington, the largest city in San Juan County, and the Santa Fe-Espanola area were among the cleanest U.S. cities for short-term particle pollution. Farmington and Albuquerque were among the cleanest cities for long-term particle pollution.

Overall, the report found that air pollution at times reaches unhealthy levels in almost every major U.S. city and that 186.1 million people live in those areas. The number is much higher than last year's figure of about 125 million people because recent changes to the federal ozone standard mean more counties recognize unhealthy levels of pollution.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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