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Indigenous Groups in New Mexico Demand Action as Toxic Waste Spills Quadruple

Frontline groups say an Interior Department plan to clean up extraction sites in the Greater Chaco Region has stalled.

People observe a fracking site in the Greater Chaco Region on September 27, 2015.

It’s been two years since United States Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the Honoring Chaco Initiative, a multiphase plan with the potential to transform how land stewardship decisions about mineral extraction, remediation and cleanup of extraction sites on federally controlled lands are made in the Greater Chaco Region of northern New Mexico. But members of the Greater Chaco Coalition are worried there have been no signs of life since Phase 1 was completed and a report detailing its activities was issued by consultants a year ago.

Formed in 2014 to confront the oil production boom fueled by horizontal drilling technology and high oil prices, the coalition comprises Indigenous community leaders, Native groups, nonprofits, and public Land and Water Protectors. On November 14, the coalition issued a call for the Biden administration to follow through with honoring Chaco.

Kendra Pinto, a Diné woman living in a frontline community in the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation who’s been part of the coalition since its earliest days, recalls a sense of relief when she heard about the initiative. But the feeling was tempered, Pinto told Truthout, “because it’s sort of like having to be on guard all the time, especially when you live in an area like this.”

Pinto was on the scene shortly after 36 oil and fracking fluid storage tanks exploded at a WPX Energy facility in Nageezi, New Mexico, in the summer of 2016, terrorizing the families living nearby and propelling black plumes of proprietary chemical compounds into the air. The fire burned for days. Unplanned evacuations were haphazard, underfunded and short-lived. Vulnerable people with few options reluctantly returned home to grimy walls, lingering chemical odors and shattered security. Despite billions of dollars in oil and gas revenue collected annually by the state of New Mexico, to this day, the closest urgent care facility is in Farmington, 61 miles away.

Inextricably linked to these conditions, the Greater Chaco Region has a century-long history of exploitative mineral extraction — gas, uranium, coal and oil. The Farmington field office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has saddled the San Juan Basin with more than 40,000 injection wells now in various stages of their life cycles — active, low-producing, orphaned and abandoned — all emitting harmful gasses through flaring, venting or disrepair, all contributing to ill effects on nearby communities like Pinto’s. She has watched the familiar, harsh, rugged, but wholly beloved natural landscape be degraded to an industrialized hodgepodge of drilling rigs, well pads and oversized tanks — eyesores by day, light polluters by night.

So when the Honoring Chaco Initiative was announced, Pinto says, “It wasn’t like I was like, oh great! It was more like, OK, whats next? Is this going to be implemented? Are folks going to get the protection they need?”

So far, the answer has been partially and minimally.

As part of Phase 1, the Interior Department approved a 20-year mineral withdrawal, banning any new mineral leasing of unleased federal lands within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, creating a buffer zone. It sounds substantial, and while 336,404.42 acres are now newly ineligible for drilling, there are limitations rendering the likely impacts negligible. The BLM news release explained that “withdrawal applies only to public lands and federal mineral estate and does not apply to minerals owned by private, state or Tribal entities.” It adds that the withdrawal “does not affect valid existing leases; during the 20-year withdrawal period, production from existing wells could continue, additional wells could be drilled on existing leases, and Navajo Nation allottees can continue to lease their minerals.” BLM expects approximately 47 fewer oil and gas wells will be drilled over the life of the withdrawal.

Nonetheless, the newly elected president of the Navajo Nation, Buu Nygren, who is based in Arizona where there is little to no oil production, and who has yet to officially visit the Eastern Agency, opposed the withdrawal. In an interview with KUNM, Nygren said he grew up in poverty and ran as an “anti-poverty” candidate. Nygren is concerned drilling operators will be dissuaded from doing business with allottees “in areas where allotted lands are not contiguously aligned or grouped in such a way that allows a company to extract minerals through horizontal drilling.”

Under the 1887 Dawes Act, the federal government proposed to divide communal lands into plots assignable to heads of household and tribal members for their subsistence farming, in the pattern of small family farms. The land allocated to Navajos was initially not considered as part of the reservation. Further, the government determined that land “left over” after all members had received allotments was to be considered “surplus” and available for sale to non-Native Americans. The allotment program continued until 1934. Today, this patchwork of reservation and non-reservation land is called “the checkerboard” area. The land is held in trust by the U.S. government for the benefit of the original “Indian Allottee” or heirs. A single allotment can have many heirs, and allottees own the mineral rights.

In July, Nygren testified in Congress in support of the Energy Opportunities for All Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Eli Crane (R-Arizona), that would rescind the ban. Nygren did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment or share information about any future plans to see the landscape for himself and open the lines of communication with members of the Nation who are not allottees but who have to live with the consequences of heavy industry.

The Greater Chaco Region covers an area of 8,000 square miles and includes the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which is home to rare, fragile but massive stone ruins of the civilization built by Puebloan people who lived, traded and held ceremonies there from 850 to 1250. Their legacy includes architecture designed with apertures precisely placed to align with the sun and moon at solstices, feats of engineering including multistory great houses with more than 600 rooms, subterranean kivas (circular rooms where ceremonies were conducted), and artifacts made of copper, shells and macaw feathers that indicate trade with Mesoamerica.

Today, Greater Chaco remains a landscape of deep cultural interest and spiritual connection for members of the 19 pueblos in New Mexico, as well as the Navajo Nation, and Hopi and Jicarilla Apache Tribes. Brian Vallo, a former governor of Acoma Pueblo, located 110 miles from the park, said in an interview with PBS that Chaco is an ancestral site for his people, an extended stop in their migration to their current homelands around the year 1100. Chacoan learnings, he explained, were incorporated into Acoman cultural practices, and their people regularly return there for prayers and ceremony. About Phase 1’s 20-year withdrawal, Vallo expressed gratitude: “It’s something that has been a long time coming, and it was really gratifying that the Biden administration recognized and finally heard the voices of the Native people, and understood why we continue to insist upon these protections,” he told New Mexico in Focus. “There’s so much work still to be done.”

Phase 2 of the Honoring Chaco initiative would implement two conceptual rubrics never before attempted in mineral extraction management, in a region advocates say deserves “heightened protections.” The first is “landscape-level management,” which creates a structure for an ongoing regional conversation between governments, advocacy groups and impacted communities so they can identify, discuss and resolve issues balancing nature conservation (including health impacts) and economic interests. The second is a “cultural landscape management framework” in which land is not considered in terms of parcels but landscapes to which people are bound through their heritage and cultural practices.

These new frames open the door to three goals advocates have been working toward: just transitions away from fossil fuels for Navajo allottees, workers, and nations and tribes who depend economically on oil and gas development; environmental safeguards for the land, air, and water going forward, and remediation for past and current harms; and a pathway to address the cumulative environmental and social injustices committed against frontline communities.

In the meantime, conditions on the ground are deteriorating. Spills of liquid toxic waste from oil and gas production have quadrupled in the Greater Chaco Landscape these past two years. In October, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) reported a 50 percent compliance rate with air quality requirements, a record the department’s head called “dismal.” After much fanfare from New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham upon passing the Environmental Transition Act in 2019, which she called “a promise to future generations of New Mexicans,” the state is way off target to meet its climate goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, in part because of problems in the field. NMED Secretary James Kenney told KUNM in February:

Our staffing isn’t where it needs to be…. I’ll be the first to tell you that passing nationally leading oil and gas rules — or any other rule for that matter — without the staff to implement them, falls short of our ability to say, ‘We’re doing a good job.’ Passing rules is not the destination. Passing them and ensuring compliance is.

Daniel Tso, a former Navajo Nation Council delegate and an early member of the Greater Chaco Coalition, has been fighting the fracking scourge for a long time now. He leads fracking tours for people curious to see with their own eyes the impacts on the landscape. He told Truthout the median age of the Navajo Nation has dropped to 18 years old, and he is laser focused on making sure there will be clean water in the aquifers for them, adding that the venting and leaking of methane and other volatile organic compounds, sometimes on purpose, has to stop.

“The health impacts really must be taken as a crisis,” Tso said. “For those of us who went through the Health Impact Assessment, we’ve found out a major impact is on the endocrine system, and our children are vulnerable.”

Tso is sounding the alarm about the five wells across from Lybrook Elementary School, where more than 80 students spend their days.

“One of the bus drivers relays that the majority of those students carry around inhalers,” he reported. He says complaints to BLM, the State Oil Conservation Division and NMED go unheeded. “They basically fall not on deaf ears, but ears that are listening to somebody else,” he said.

Tso persists in seeing the Honoring Chaco Initiative as a way to address those matters of importance to the community.

“However, I think there’s the realization that, with all the wishes and wants of implementing it, it’s gonna take longer than anticipated.”

When Secretary Haaland announced the initiative, it was not made part of a National Environmental Policy Act process, so there was no budget attached to it. Nor was it published in the Federal Register, so there are no fixed deadlines. Nonetheless, when asked what’s ahead for the initiative, Interior Department Deputy Communications Director Tyler Cherry told Truthout in an email that things have been advancing behind the scenes:

Leadership from the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs have been working alongside Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, Tribal organizations, Tribally led non-governmental organizations and other intergovernmental stakeholders to implement the initiative.

The Department looks forward to announcing more information on Phase 2 by the end of the calendar year.

But as health and environmental consequences continue to mount for community members on the ground, their longstanding forbearance is straining.

“Addressing the legacy of extraction and broken promises for Greater Chaco is long overdue,” said Rebecca Sobel, organizing director at WildEarth Guardians, on behalf of the Greater Chaco Coalition. “There must be a choice beyond continued sacrifice to fossil fuels.”

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