|June 10, 2020|
'Their greed is gonna kill us'
|A few winters ago, Sam Sage started getting strange phone calls. |
Families living in rural areas south-west of Counselor, New Mexico, were telling him they saw sickly bull snakes and near-death rattlers above ground during the snowy, winter months of the south. Sage, the administrator at the Counselor Chapter House, a Navajo local government center, was incredulous.
"In February? There's no snakes in February," he said.
Sage had a theory for what was happening: underground vibrations from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, forced the snakes from their dens and on to the surface.
Over the years, he's noticed other changes. Vegetation died off and the climate became drier. People living in homes with dirt floors told him they had felt vibrations from the ground late at night, from 2 to 4am.
The Navajo and Puebloan lands of north-western New Mexico where Counselor is located are no stranger to drilling. The first oil well in the area was reportedly drilled in 1911 with natural gas following soon after.
Today, the US Bureau of Land Management is considering a plan, known as the Mancos-Gallup Amendment, which could lease land in the region for some 3,000 new wells -- many of which would be for fracking oil and gas. The plan would expand drilling into some of northern New Mexico's last available public lands, threatening the desecration of sacred Native artefacts near Chaco Canyon while bringing in a swath of new public health risks to a place that's already reeling from one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in the world.
Native sites at risk
Fighting the amendment is something of a last stand for Native and environmental activists who have seen the oil and gas industry proliferate in recent decades. They say at least 90% of public lands in northern New Mexico are already leased for oil and gas drilling.
Under the Trump administration, the amount of US lands up for lease to oil and gas companies has soared -- 461m acres across the country, as of earlier this year. To New Mexico environmentalists and indigenous activists, the new plan is just another instance of the administration's energy dominance agenda threatening some of the country's most pristine lands.
The new proposal would encroach further upon the Chaco culture national historical park -- a network of historic archaeological sites that today hold Unesco world heritage status and are of spiritual importance to Navajo and Puebloan people in the region.
"To a non-indigenous person, they are ruins. But to an indigenous Pueblo person, they're still active sites that are used in spiritual ways," said Julia Bernal, the environmental justice director at the Pueblo Action Alliance, an indigenous sustainability organization formed in the wake of Standing Rock. "The fight has constantly been, 'These are sacred sites.' But the non-indigenous power is like, 'Well prove to us these are sacred sites.' How can we prove that when it's our beliefs?"
Chaco park and other parts of the canyon are protected from drilling through a congressional funding bill. But there are some 250 outlying sites spread throughout north-west New Mexico, said Michelle Turner, an archaeologist studying the region. Many of those sites are connected by ancient roads, she said, which are gradually being erased by drilling-related development.
Native people have been living in Chaco Canyon for hundreds -- if not thousands -- of years, long before the construction of the recognizable Chacoan great houses starting in the mid-ninth century, Turner said. Archaeologists and researchers have been studying the region for 150 years, but "we're just barely beginning to understand what was going on there," she added.
Turner said researchers don't fully understand fracking's potential for archaeological wreckage. However, fracking requires pumping sand, water and chemicals deep underground and then horizontally, breaking through rock formations to release oil or gas, making it more destructive than traditional, vertical wells.
Archaeologists estimate there are Native artefacts throughout much of the 7,500-sq-mile San Juan Basin, some of them probably buried underground and at risk from drilling. Julia Bernal said the sites are more than historic artefacts.
Pollution and health concerns grow more important
Those like Sage, who have spent their life on the lands where fracking has become widespread, point at everyday health and security risks that come with having drilling operations nearby.
The spectre of drilling's dangers became real in 2016 when oil tanks owned by WPX Energy exploded near Nageezi, New Mexico, causing a huge fire that burned for days.
"It sounded like a pop and then a whoosh, like gas going into a hot air balloon," Nageezi resident Ida Begay told the Navajo Times. "These explosions shook the air."
Begay and more than 50 others were evacuated from their homes in the incident, which weighs heavily on the minds of many in the region today.
Some residents have complained of headaches and other health issues, caused by breathing in methane.
Mario Atencio, a Navajo organizer, said he was overcome by headaches when visiting an orphaned well by his grandma's land near Counselor last year.
Below Atencio's grandma's land and much of north-west New Mexico sits the San Juan Basin, a 75m-year-old geological formation that is a major natural gas and oil field.
Above the basin and throughout the Four Corners region is a vast cloud of methane -- "the largest concentration of the greenhouse gas methane seen over the United States", according to a 2016 Nasa study.
Burning off the excess from natural gas wells, or flaring, is the primary cause of this pollution. But the gas also leaks from abandoned wells like the one on Atencio's grandma's land. Breathing in methane can cause headaches has been linked to health issues, including neurodevelopmental effects on children.
Atencio, who works with the environmental group Diné Care and is an adviser for Daniel Tso, a Navajo Nation council member, said the Bureau of Land Management is often unclear about the health and environmental risks of drilling.
Atencio said that when BLM representatives approach people about getting consent to lease their land for drilling, many residents walk away believing it's going to be an older type of vertical drilling, "like the Beverly Hillbillies". The assumption is that if they sign the agreement, their land will produce oil safely and they'll get a big check, he said.
It seemed as if BLM authorities try swaying Native people to favor drilling, leaving out certain facts, Atencio said. "That by the very definition is environmental racism and environmental injustice," he added.
In a statement, Jillian Aragon, a BLM spokesperson, said the agency was developing the Mancos-Gallup Amendment "in coordination with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to ensure the proper fulfillment of our obligations to Tribal communities", adding that tribes, Pueblos and others' comments will inform the final document.
Covid-19 pushes health concern to forefront
As more residents learn about the risks from fracking -- from the air pollution to the disturbances to wildlife and Native artefacts -- opposition to expanding drilling has grown, Atencio said, and the oil and gas checks aren't as important as they once seemed.
"We're not worried about your money. That ship has sailed," he said. "We're worried about the health impacts coming out of these wells."
Covid-19 is making health concerns more prescient. The Navajo Nation and surrounding areas have some of the highest per-capita infection rates in the world.
Environmental organizers are concerned that air pollution in the region will exacerbate the death toll, pointing to a recent Harvard study showing that people living in areas with higher pollution have a significantly higher death rate.
The coronavirus has slowed the Mancos-Gallup Amendment's path forward by a few months, at least. After the pandemic began, Native organizers pleaded with BLM for weeks to extend a public comment period. Many weren't able to attend the Zoom hearings due to the spotty or nonexistent internet service around the Greater Chaco region.
Just before the deadline, BLM listened, and pushed the comment deadline to late September, a 120-day extension.
Still, for many in this part of Indian Country, the extension isn't enough: the Mancos-Gallup Amendment and drilling ever-nearer to Chaco is too much.
Sage believes that the Trump administration and its BLM are forcing through the amendment as part of their energy dominance agenda, regardless of their risks.
"They're gonna kill us for their own greed," Sage said.