Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

January 26, 2018

'Protecting Sacred Chuska Mountains from Oil and Gas Industry' by Robyn Jackson, Dineh

Jan. 11, 2018

Fall 2017

Health, safety of communities behind the Red Valley tour

Censored News

Last week's Navajo Times included an article about a tour of oil and helium well sites in Red Valley that I helped organize ("Tour finds toxic gas leaks in Red Valley," Jan. 18, 2018).
This tour included community members from the Chuska region and elsewhere, as well as professionals who brought surveying equipment. It is important for the public to be aware of what led up to this event.
A series of oil companies have operated wells in Red Valley, on the eastern side of Buffalo Pass, since the 1960s. The area is known as the Dine Bikeyah Oil Field. Local residents have long noticed bad smells and some have expressed concern over the health and safety of land, water, and livestock in the area, especially since an oil spill polluted part of the valley in 2005. But clear answers were hard to come by, and the companies work ing the wells kept changing.
Within the last five years, people in the Chuska area have mentioned fracking occurring in Red Valley. I admit I'm still trying to understand what this means exactly. Then this past summer, community members across the Chuskas who regularly use Buffalo Pass began to notice increased worker activity at the Dine Bikeyah Oil Field.
I began to do research and consulted with all types of experts — petroleum engineers, hard rock minerals experts, geologists, botanists, oil well technicians, individuals who work at the state and federal level.
Interestingly, when a friend and I asked individuals at the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Permits Office and the Minerals Department what was going on in Red Valley, we were immediately
told that "fracking" was not occurring.
We then asked, "How would you describe what is happening"? In both instances, we were told, "fracturing" was occurring.
The reality is that the terms frack-ing, fracturing, and hydraulic fracturing all mean the same thing. Fracking is the more popular term that describes the breaking of underground rock formations. Fracking is a process used by the oil and gas industry to get at more difficult to reach deposits of oil and natural gas. A figure from ProPublica states that, "Hydraulic fracturing is a process used in 9 out of 10 natural gas wells in the United States."
Although the Dine Bikeyah Oil Field in Red Valley was established in the 1960s as an oil field and still has some active oil wells, there are also wells to extract helium. Apparently, there have been periods (such as during World War II) when the Navajo Nation leased out different sites for the purpose of helium extraction.
Currently the DBK oil field has active helium wells. Helium is a unique gas that is rare and is often captured alongside natural gas. In a September 2015 press release, the industrial gases company Praxair signed a non-specified, but "long-term helium purchase agreement" with Nacogdoches Oil and Gas for it's operations in Apache County, Arizona, with an agreement to "supply up to 100 million standard cubic feet per year of helium, with the potential for further expansion."
"Potential for further expansion" should be kept in mind in the context of the Navajo Nation's Integrated Resource Management Plan for Navajo forestlands, currently under development.
Since 2015 the Navajo Nation's Natural Resources Division, with direction from BIA, has been creating a resource management plan for all resources within Navajo forestlands that includes the Chuska and Defiance Mountains, Navajo Mountain and Mt. Powell. While the plan has been touted as an all-in-one plan for responsible management of all resources, presentations by Navajo Nation resource managers reveal their interest in using it to ramp up resource extraction for profit within our forestlands and mountains, including oil, gas, and helium for ever-hungry fossil fuel companies.
During the fall, a few meetings were hosted by consultants hired by Navajo Nation Forestry to gather community input. They were not well attended, and it would be worthwhile to ask how much community input and direction will be included in the IRMP and the specific resource management plans that will follow.
During the 2015 announcement of the IRMP by then BIA regional forester and Navajo Nation resources departments, Navajo Nation Minerals Department presented a map identify ing "oil and gas potential" all along the eastern side of the Chuskas, followed by "aggregate potential" marked for all mountains, excluding Mt. Powell.
This crucial information was not shared during the fall 2017 community meetings and has not been printed on the brochures or other online material about the Navajo Forestlands IRMP.
Oil and gas, as well as aggregate (gravel) mining are all intensive operations that have drastic consequences to land, human health, aquifers, and most definitely to the mountain watershed that provides for numerous Dine communities downstream.
In the drilling and production phases of oil and gas, a long list of toxic chemicals are used, leaving be hind toxic waste that poses a number of human and environmental health hazards with pollution to air, soil, and water.
According to Earthworks, specific symptoms that communities near oil and gas fields have increasingly reported are: "asthma, respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, autoimmune diseases, liver failure, cancer and other ailments like headaches, nausea, and sleeplessness."
The potential for human and environmental harm from oil and gas operations should be taken seriously. The Chuskas are sacred mountains and play a crucial role in the water cycle, more vital now than ever as we notice the effects of climate instability.
Individuals from Red Valley and other communities in the Chuskas have tried bringing attention to the operations there in the past. Our tour and recording of that site was a long time coming. The whole issue of oil and gas on the Navajo Nation needs to be addressed.
Wasn't Navajo Oil and Gas bailed out for millions of dollars by our tribal Council? What about the oil spill from the DBK field that occurred in 2005 when a stream of oil was running down into the valley? Especially pressing — what about the intense fracking operations in the Eastern Agency?
Now that coal is on its way out the door, there is a clamor for natural gas to take its place. What does this mean for our communities? It means this is the bigger threat now. We can expect increased pressure to lease out our lands and communities to natural gas
Tribes often rely on federal agencies to enforce regulation, maintenance, and cleanup of extractive industries. But the current administration in Washington has rejected this responsibility. It is too busy rolling back environmental and health regulations and safeguards. This kind of deregulation will only lead to shortcuts being taken that will increase the likelihood of accidents, spills and contamination.
Too often company operators declare bankruptcy and escape the rules on cleanup and remediation, meaning these threats to our sacred lands do not get addressed. State and federal bond prices hardly cover the cost of cleanup. For companies, it is often cheaper to forfeit a bond than to follow reclamation rules.
Having grown up in the Chuskas, namely on the western side of the mountains in Wheatfields, I feel a responsibility to understand, question, and if need be, challenge any major proposal that would inflict harm to my mountain home. This is why I helped organize this tour.
Really, it's up to us to secure the health and safety of our land, and build ways to support our families that will not put them in danger. It's also up to our Navajo Nation government to stop looking the other way, and take up this long overdue responsibility.

ROBYN JACKSON, from Wheatfields, Arizona, is a member of Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment. She grew up among the social and environmental justice leaders of Diné CARE and works with them today. Her parents led local community sustainable forestry efforts in the Chuskas in the 1990s, and this continues to serve as inspiration for her. Robyn is Tó'áhaní (Near the Water Clan) and has a bachelor's degree in sociology from Fort Lewis College.

This column appears in the Navajo Times and is published with permission by Robyn Jackson.

'Protecting Sacred Chuska Mountains from Oil and Gas Industry' by Robyn Jackson, Dineh
Copyright Robyn Jackson, Censored News

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