Farmers Receive No Response One Week After Oil Spill Was Discovered by Navajo Citizen, Impacting Navajo Grazing and Agricultural Land in Shiprock, New Mexico

Diné Centered Research and Evaluation 

Contacts: Beverly Maxwell, (505) 592-7466. 

Janene Yazzie, ‪(505) 399-2967‬.


Shiprock, New Mexico 

Beverly Maxwell was out of town on business for work when she was contacted by another community member on December 11th about an oil spill she discovered near a BIA road through her grazing land and near a wash that drains into one of the numerous agricultural canals farmers depend on. On Thursday, December 14th, an all-day soaking rain storm came through the community. Ms. Maxwell was not able to get a response from any officials that she contacted, but a family member said that they were told that the nearest safety valve was far away so there was no choice but to just let the crude oil flow.

Walking along her grazing land to assess the reach of the flow, Ms Maxwell took 45 mins of video footage, estimating the the oil flowed a good 1/2 mile from the breach in the pipeline. While some of the oil spill spread out over the adjacent grazing land, much of it also flowed into a nearby wash and gullies which, with heavy rains, drains into a nearby livestock pond and a major irrigation canal, potentially reaching surrounding agricultural fields. In the video Ms. Maxwell took she describes the kind of wildlife, aside from livestock, that depend on the pond, called “Duck Pond”, illustrating the importance of the local reservoir to the surrounding ecosystem.

“Cottontail rabbits, birds of various species, lizards, snakes, migratory birds that come through, they actually use that pond down there as well. The Great Blue Heron, bald Eagles… a number of different prey birds. Kangaroo rats, a number of different species of Kangaroo rat, I remember one time we came across a Calico, big, bigger than the usual Kangaroo Rat” said Ms. Maxwell, who continues generational farming and raising of livestock on lands deeply rooted in. She continued “and milk snakes … this is not okay. Any spill of any oil and gas, on any area is not okay. The smell is pretty strong”. Capturing a huge oil tank brought in, she shared, “as I understand, a family member said there were three tanks at one time; there’s one now, the others must have filled out or something of what was gushing out. It’ll [the smell] give you a headache and nauseous feeling in an instant.”

Ms. Maxwell and others have reached out to the Navajo Nation, Navajo Nation Oil and Gas, and elected leadership with no response though cleanup crews did show up at the area at an undetermined time after the spill was detected. It’s not clear how fast their response was, when they stopped the flow, nor who is doing the cleanup. Since then Ms. Maxwell has been able to piece together that the oil pipeline was ruptured as the result of an accident, stemming from routine road maintenance (road grading). Currently a cleanup crew is trenching and moving contaminated soil into a pile, but there is still residual contamination in the trenched areas and across the spill area.

“That pipeline was just inches from the road surface and leveled with it [the road]. This road used to be maintained by the BIA but the Chapter has been helping with maintenance in the past few years by grading it”, observed Ms. Maxwell, “why the company, who cleanup crews said was Running Horse Pipeline, has not done due diligence to ensure the protection and safety of their pipeline from accidents like this is a question that needs to be answered. They know where they’ve laid their pipelines and they should be ensuring that dangerous breaches like this are prevented,” said Ms. Maxwell.

Ms. Maxwell and community advocates from Diné Centered Research and Evaluation (DCRE) have also reached out to local media and state representatives to bring attention to this urgent issue.

“Oil and Gas infrastructure is all through the Shiprock community and Eastern Navajo, and daily operations as well as spills like this pose a major threat to the local ecosystems, water resources and public health. We need to address how this spill could’ve happened, why response took so long, and why there are no emergency management procedures in place to inform the community in a transparent way how much was spilled and what efforts are being done to mitigate and clean up the impacted areas?” said Hazel James of DCRE. “When Ms. Maxwell reached out to us, we understood that a timely response would be important to ensure that the community is not further negatively impacted”.

“We need to make sure that independent environmental studies are carried out to assess any damage to the soil, vegetation and local water resources and irrigation canals,” said Janene Yazzie of NDN Collective, and a member of DCRE.  “This incident shows how Oil and Gas operations are allowed to operate with little to no community accountability or transparency that centers public health and protection of our lands and waters.”