photo of chaco canyon national park entrance for sierra club article on oil drilling in nearby communities

By Teresa Seamster, Northern New Mexico Group

How can oil-drilling leases cause the loss of an individual’s safety, private property and ability to follow religious practices?

The greater Chaco area in northwest New Mexico’s San Juan Basin is experiencing a ramping up of oil and gas development that has shaken residents with multiple impacts.

A stretch of federal highway that runs through Counselor, Lybrook and Nageezi and a web of new dirt access roads to well pads near these small communities along US 550 have made local travel slow, congested and often dangerous.
In January, a hot oil truck crashed into a propane tanker and exploded, closing US 550 at Lybrook for over 3 hours while the fire burned. There is no fire station or emergency responders closer than Cuba, more than 30 miles away.

“There’s a 25-mile stretch of US 550 through Lybrook that has been turned over to Halliburton, WPX and Encana by our state highway department,” said a Mountainair contractor who commutes weekly to Farmington. “The company trucks criss-cross the highway continuously and drop so much dirt that it’s dangerous and you’d need equipment to move it.”
There is evidence that federal managers and private companies have worked together to exchange land with private landowners to negotiate a lease on the piece of preferred land.

“The BLM is working with the oil companies to exchange federal land for Navajo allotee land that is preferred for leasing by an oil company,” said one allotee about a land swap offered him. “Of course what they don’t tell you is that you only own the surface of the new acres and that any day an oil rig could show up on your land and you can do nothing about it.”

“Most allotees own land that is so fractionated between the many heirs to the land that the simplest thing to do is agree to lease to the oil companies on their terms,” commented one allotee with over 100 heirs to his family land.

Many Navajos living around Chaco practice traditional ceremonies. The road building, pad installation and exploratory drilling around Chaco since February have already destroyed ancient religious sites that have been visited annually for hundreds of years.

“They have already scraped off the ceremonial site on the road to Nageezi where our community has gone to for centuries,” commented one resident at a Chapter House meeting in Counselor.

“Look at Heart Mesa and what they’ve done,” said a resident of Ojo Encino during a slide show at the Chapter House that showed well-pad installations on the side of Heart Mesa that infringed on sacred sites — in violation of BLM guidelines.

The Greater Chaco Coalition of more than 30 Navajo, community and environmental organizations is calling the attention of BLM, state and tribal governments to the escalating problems that increased oil and gas development is causing for the inhabitants and culture of the greater Chaco area.

Recently, the Farmington Field Office of BLM provided a map that shows a 5-mile and 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park designating where BLM lands will not be leased for development. However, these zones already have some active leases, and no buffer has been suggested for communities or important ancient Chaco outliers, great houses and roads outside the zones.

For the people of Lybrook, Counselor and Nageezi, there is no mitigation in sight for the damage and pollution from hundreds of oil trucks, thousands of trips back and forth to the wells, “night deposits” of produced water from fracked wells that have been seen dumped in local arroyos, months of methane flaring from wells less than a mile from the area school, and sudden closures of the highway and the school due to oil operations.

In response to some 30,000 comments to BLM and another 200,000 petition signatures opposing the increased oil development near Chaco, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall requested in May that a high-level delegation from Washington DC visit Chaco and address the concerns and impacts. On June 29, Interior Department Deputy Secretary Mike Connor visited Chaco Culture National Historical Park with Udall and met briefly with coalition groups and the public. The coalition’s main request was a moratorium on further leasing and development until the BLM completes a Resource Management Plan for the Mancos Shale-San Juan Basin and addresses the multiple issues caused by hydraulic fracturing.

The Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter is assisting with a Health Impact Assessment in the Lybrook and Counselor area. that will include community air and water testing and recommendations for improving health outcomes.

Feature Photo by Rio Grande Sierra Club

Chaco communities in oil-field crosshairs
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