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Fears, Tears and Jeers at a BLM Listening Session: a Navajo Community Takes Fracking to Heart

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Meeting on fracking in Counselor, New Mexico.

There were Agonistes on both sides of the dais at the Bureau of Land Management’s listening session at the Torreon, Counselor and Ojo Encino Tri-Chapter meeting on September 28. A Diné mother publicly apologized to her daughter for allowing drilling on their lands, and a visibly affected BLM manager broke silence to protest that he cares about the people affected by his agency’s decisions. 

Approximately 65 community members, officials from the Nageezi and Pueblo Pintado chapters of the Navajo Nation, and environmental activists from New Energy Economy, Wild Earth Guardians, San Juan Citizens Alliance, and the Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club, converged upon Counselor, New Mexico, to urge the BLM to cancel its proposed January 2017 auction of four parcels, which would open up another thousand acres of public lands for oil and gas leasing.

“From Alabama to Michigan to Navajo Nation there have been oil and gas explosions, leaks, spills, ruptures and air, soil and water contamination,” explained Mariel Nanasi, New Energy Economy’s Executive Director in a written statement. “The oil and gas industry is wreaking havoc all across America and its time for a national moratorium on fracking.”

Part of that havoc is the burden of self-recrimination of individuals who agreed to industry’s terms before fully grasping the potential hazards of hydraulic fracturing.

I am an allottee, and I’m ashamed,” the Diné mother said. “Yeah, I went over there to the Marriott and signed my name, got a big bonus.”

Recalling her actions, she broke down, the first of four community members to openly weep, at times uncontrollably, in the meeting where people could no longer contain their hurt and outrage at being put at risk. “I never thought of my grandkids,” she said through her tears. “I wonder what it’s going to be like for them 20 years from now, things are already so out of hand.”

She told the meeting how her hopes for oil revenue withered on the vine. “I was in the negative in my IM account; how can you be in the negative?” she asked. Plus her health has taken a sharp turn for the worse. “I get up every morning with a headache, I have asthma. I’m achy all over.”

The mountain of personal testimony about adverse affects of fracking on the community where 91% of public lands under the aegis of BLM, representing 72,000 acres, have already been leased came crashing down fast and furious, heavy and hard, on those who hung in there for for the more than 6-hour continuous working session.

Diné environmental justice advocate Daniel Tso, Brandon Velivis, economic development adviser for Ojo Encino Chapter, and others posited that the 91% threshold was a “unique circumstance” which alone should disqualify any further lease sales out of the Farmington Field Office. They argued that the Management Resource Plan under which the leases were being authorized was obsolete; written in 2003 it does not contemplate hydraulic fracturing. Mike Eisenfeld, a 20-year resident of Farmington, said an amendment had been promised in 2014, but the community is still waiting.

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Navajo Nation flag with oil derrick in center.

“There’s people living there,” was a constant refrain.

‘We’re slowly dying faster than everyone else,” said Kendra Pinto, a local resident who was arrested at the Department of Interior in Washington, DC, on September 15 in a Keep it in the Ground protest action. “The people who say yes to more drilling are looking at a piece of paper, they don’t even see us.”

Velivis added concerns for lost tourism given the proximity of the proposed drilling sites to Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, and for the park itself given recent earthquakes in Oklahoma. The audience applauded when Tso declared “tribal consultation should include community consultation.”

The discussions of additional leases and drilling were especially frightening to residents living near the site of the July 11 fire at WPX Energy’s West Lybrook oil production plant. The fire burned for five days.

“Where that fire occurred, every time there’s a loud noise little kids ask ‘What’s going to happen to us, daddy? Are we going to die? Do we have to move again?’” Tso told the panel.

Erwin Chavez, president of the Nageezi Chapter, described a meeting with the drill operators after the fire.

“We met with WPX over the Nageezi fire; the BLM was pushed out of that process.”

He addressed his next comments to the Farmington Field Office staff. “You’ve been riding a huge elephant with a bridle and now there’s no way you can slow this down. There’s a double message coming from the federal administration. Concerns about climate change, but HAVE AT IT on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico.”

Sam Sage, Counselor Chapter Coordinator, said he’d asked WPX to share its evacuation plan, but still hadn’t received it. “We want copies here,” he said. Reports had reached the Chapter that WPX had been misinforming allottees that “if they speak out against fracking they will have to forfeit their bonuses.” Which he characterized as nonsense, “but some of the elderly believe it.”

Two members of The Red Nation of Albuquerque provided a political analysis. Cheyenne Antonio and Loyola Cowboy spoke of “resource colonization” and “settler oppression” and raised the specter of high crime zones called “man camps” which are hotspots of substance abuse, sexual assault and other forms of violence.

“These people are against us,” Cowboy said referring to the BLM staff. “They’re not going to talk about the violence. When these man camps come, who’s going to have to put up with their stuff?”

About the methane cloud already over the area, she was adamant. “My family members have to drink the water; you wouldn’t give this water to your grandparents.”

“We are being highly violated,” Antonio said. “We can’t even translate the word methane or sulfate into Navajo… oil and crime go together… our boys are being murdered. Are we just going extinct like the elephants?”

Velivis described a community helpless to defend itself.

“We don’t have public safety infrastructure. The money from the sale of the leases goes to Washington, DC and Santa Fe. We don’t see revenues come in to provide fire, police, or emergency services.”

He informed the BLM that flares from the wells impact the night and morning skies, which are “cultural resources” and that shifts in climate change are acutely felt.

“We live in areas that are on the edge when it comes to weather, we only get 9-11 inches of rain as it is. Our plant life is a cultural resource, at risk if it gets warmer and dryer in this region.”

From the perspective of an Economic Justice analysis, Velivis questioned whether the area reaped any economic benefit from an increase in employment. “Most of the workers don’t appear to be Diné.”

“I learned more today than all my environmental classes at Stanford ever taught me,” said Lyla June, who appeared at the meeting wearing traditional dress because “I’m really tired of pretending to be something I’m not, and to conform to a society that never really had the interest of my ancestors in mind.” June, whose song “All Nations Rise” garnered over a million viewers on Youtube last month, repeated a view expressed by many of the commenters at the listening session: “I am willing to put everything I have on the line.”

Erlene Henderson, Vice President of the Pueblo Pintado chapter, rose to speak and burn her people’s experience into the minds of the BLM staff.

“People are getting sick—fracking is ruining our land, our farms, our livestock, contaminating our air, our water, our sacred places, our herbs, our medicine.” Putting her notes down she addressed BLM leadership directly. “Our people are grieving here, they’re hurting, they are in pain.”

After a full day of filling the pages of his notepad with reported incidents of hazardous roads, social impacts, polluted water, air, night skies, noise, cancer, terrible odors, emotional distress, and more, Richard A. Fields, the Farmington Field Office Manager groped for words to respond.

“We are changing,” Fields said. “I am trying to make things work…I have my personal ethics…that will not allow me to close my eyes to what is right. I will give our state director all of your concerns,” he promised. “I am hearing everything you are saying.”

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Frances Madeson is the author of the comic novel Cooperative Village (Carol MRP Co., New York, 2007), and a social justice blogger at Written Word, Spoken Word.

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