Health complaints lead Chaco-area residents to question price of oil
COUNSELOR — About halfway through a recent Sunday service at Living Spring Baptist Church, the sermon took an unusual turn. The Rev. Tom Guerito’s exhortations to trust in God and resist sin, delivered mostly in Diné, gave way to a more earthly concern: oil and gas.
“People say, ‘I smell it,’ ” Guerito told the 20 or so parishioners who have lived since 2012 among an expanding constellation of oil and gas wells.
But an air monitor installed nearby found nothing out of the ordinary, he said. “There’s nothing in the air. People scare each other. God will take care of us.”
Over the past seven years, hundreds of wells have risen amid the small houses and hogans scattered across this remote piñon- and juniper-flecked stretch of high desert a few miles northeast of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
And reports of health ailments have risen with them.
A 2017 citizen science report chronicled local complaints of nausea, burning eyes, respiratory problems, recurring headaches — all of which, studies have shown, can be caused by chemicals released during the extraction, processing and transport of oil and gas.
But people in the largely Navajo communities here, where the new development also has brought new jobs, are divided over whether oil and gas development is a blessing or a curse.
Reassurances from the pulpit notwithstanding, some of Guerito’s parishioners worry about the consequences of living with oil and gas.
“You can really smell it,” Lucy Martinez said after the service.
“Especially when it’s windy,” added Cecilia Sandoval. Her two grandsons, ages 5 and 9, have asthma. Studies have shown emissions from oil and gas production can exacerbate the condition.
For residents who own mineral rights or have found employment in the industry, the wells are a much-needed source of income in an area with an average annual household income of $7,300 to $7,800.
But the new development has also brought more pollution to a corner of the state where, just to the north in the upper San Juan Basin, 40,000 natural gas wells have spawned a massive methane cloud — the biggest concentration in the U.S.
The development has helped push San Juan County, which includes the park and several Navajo communities, to the brink of violating federal air quality standards for ground-level ozone, or smog.
Ozone can aggravate asthma and cause other respiratory problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Among the hundreds of other substances emitted during oil and gas operations are hydrogen sulfide and toluene, as well as particulate matter.
As more wells mushroom across the San Juan Basin’s southern edge, residents and community leaders are becoming increasingly concerned about the price they may be paying.
A few miles from the church, the smell Martinez and Sandoval described — an odor like rotten eggs, the signature scent of hydrogen sulfide — wafts from a cluster of eight tall tanks, each painted juniper green in a failed attempt at camouflage. Their contents are labeled in black and white: CRUDE OIL. PRODUCED WATER.
Two weeks before Guerito’s sermon, on April 14, Democratic members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation came to the area at the request of residents and officials. Reps. Deb Haaland and Ben Ray Luján, joined by Reps. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and Alan Lowenthal of California, had just introduced a bill that would create a “protection zone” within a roughly 10-mile radius of the park, where no new oil and gas leasing or development would be allowed on federal lands.
Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo, one of the New Mexico pueblos with ancestral ties to the Chaco region, peered into an infrared camera aimed at a tangle of pipes atop the tanks.
“Oh my God,” she said, eyes widening. “Oh my God. It’s just spewing.”
The lens revealed what the naked eye cannot see: a pair of plumes streaming into the cornflower-blue sky. The camera, developed to help the industry and regulators identify leaks, can detect invisible gases like methane — a planet-warming gas at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide — and about 20 other compounds.
Since 2012, almost 400 wells have sprouted among the homes, schools and grazing lands in the area. The federal Bureau of Land Management expects 3,200 wells to be drilled on 75,000 acres in the Mancos shale-Gallup sandstone by 2037, according to a 2018 report by the agency.
“There’s been a big push to develop the area in the past few years,” said Samuel Sage, the community services coordinator for the Counselor Chapter of the Navajo Nation.
Advances in drilling technology, most notably horizontal drilling combined with hydraulic fracturing, have made it possible for companies to coax oil from the tight shale that underlies the Chaco area.
Full steam ahead
The state has its own protection plan: On April 27, surrounded by Navajo officials and activists at the Counselor Chapter House, New Mexico Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard signed a moratorium on new mineral development on state trust lands within the buffer — about 72,776 acres.
But neither her measure nor the one in Congress affects existing wells on state or federal lands, and companies may still drill for minerals controlled by the Navajo Nation or individual Navajo landowners. And given the Trump administration’s embrace of fossil fuels, it’s unlikely the congressional bill will become law anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management continues to offer oil and gas leases in the Greater Chaco area, over the protests of local Navajo officials. In a 2017 report, they urged the BLM to suspend further leasing until it completes a new management plan and until “a full understanding of potential environmental and health impacts of horizontal hydraulic fracturing is developed.”
So far, the BLM, which oversees the vast federal mineral estate and has prioritized oil and gas development under the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” policy, has not agreed to such a hiatus.
Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, says fears of an oil and gas rush in the area are overblown. This region, he points out, is nowhere near as resource-rich as the booming Permian Basin in the state’s southeastern corner and neighboring West Texas.
“That’s where proponents have really mischaracterized the Chaco issue,” he said. “Is there development potential? Absolutely. But it’s not going to be on the scale of the Permian.”
Nevertheless, oil and gas companies have shown enough interest for the BLM to offer hundreds of oil and gas leases in the area. (In response to public opposition, the BLM withdrew the leases closest to the park.) Since 2015, the agency has received 420 applications to drill on leased lands, according to agency records.
Something in the air
As officials, politicians and the courts debate the future of oil and gas development in the area, residents continue to tally the cost of living with more wells, pipelines and truck traffic.
Across from Lybrook Elementary School, just down the road from the Counselor Chapter House on U.S. 550, a hand-painted sign stands in silent protest to an invisible threat: “METHANE GAS, ODORLESS, TOXIC, IN OUR AIR.” Air samples collected at a well near the school in 2015 by Kendra Pinto, who lives on a nearby mesa and serves on the Counselor Health Impact Committee, showed elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide.
“The school is basically downwind from that site,” she said. “It’s very concerning.”
On July 11, a group of 36 oil storage tanks near Nageezi — just up the road from Counselor — caught fire, triggering a series of explosions and forcing residents to evacuate. The fire burned for four days, turning the sky black.
While data on the link between reported health issues and oil and gas development in the communities around Chaco is scant, peer-reviewed studies of communities living near wells in other parts of the country suggest residents are right to be worried.
A study published in April in the Annual Review of Public Health, which reviewed six years of research, found the closer residents were to oil and gas facilities, the more likely they were to experience health problems.
For some residents, the toll of living with oil and gas is psychological. They report increased stress levels from noise, vibrations and smells, as well as the bright lights of well sites.
As the studies pile up and the wells keep multiplying, Pinto and other residents in the Chaco area are losing patience.
“We have to do something now,” she said. “Not five years from now.”