October 5th, New Mexico Indian Affairs Committee at Ojo Encino Chapter House
Written by: Miya King-Flaherty
The New Mexico Indian Affairs Committee held a meeting at Ojo Encino Chapter House to hear about the issues affecting communities in Greater Chaco. The most pressing...fracking. Although the Bureau of Land Management, which administers drilling applications in the region was invited, they did not attend. The meeting started off with members recalling how difficult it was to travel to the Chapter House. This is because the main road to Ojo Encino is riddled with potholes that are not maintained because of jurisdictional confusion. On this day, committee members were able to experience firsthand an issue that rural communities living in Greater Chaco face every day.
Ojo Encino Chapter House president George Werito, Counselor Chapter House community services coordinator Sam Sage, and Torreon/Star Lake Chapter House secretary and treasurer Sherry Begay welcomed and presented to the committee.
Ojo Encino, Counselor, and Torreon/Star Lake Chapter Houses form the Tri-Chapter Alliance, which advocates for community protections and assurances from governmental agencies, as well as from state and federal public officials. After hearing from the Tri-Chapter Alliance, Senator Benny Shendo was quick to request a motion for the committee to send a letter to the agencies already contacted by the Tri-Chapters to address the road to Ojo Encino. The majority of rural roads in Greater Chaco are unpaved, narrow and are constantly used by heavy oil and gas trucks. Ruts in dirt roads can be as deep as 1-foot, and this year, road conditions were unusually dangerous due to ramped up drilling activity. Senator Shendo’s motion was passed unanimously. Let’s hope they come through and commit to their promise.
Video by: Kendra Pinto
After the lunch break, the committee heard from Navajo community leader Daniel Tso, Sierra Club Northern group chair, and volunteer Teresa Seamster, San Juan Health Equity Collaborative coordinator Hazel James, and community member Mario Atencio on oil and gas drilling impacts in Greater Chaco. The presentation was compelling and revealed a host of impacts communities living in Greater Chaco experience. Daniel went on to reiterate the severity of road conditions due to a lack of funding and absence of agency accountability. He also explained the cultural significance and intrinsic value of the Greater Chaco landscape, which extends far beyond sacred sites.
Extraction is destroying vast areas of culturally significant landscapes in the region. It’s clear, this administration is intent on ignoring tribal sovereignty and input, and views nothing as sacred. Daniel also went on to discuss the misfeasance that is all too commonly practiced by the oil and gas industry.
As Teresa addressed the committee, she made sure to rebuttal comments from Republican Senator William Sharer who claimed the state derived nearly 30-percent of revenue from oil and gas. That was before market prices slumped. Something he should know given that Farmington is in his district. Farmington depends heavily on the oil and gas industry for employment--it also suffers from high levels of unemployment due to plummeting oil prices. She also corrected his statement regarding the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) acceptable levels of exposure to Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S). H2S is a gas associated with fracking that possesses a potent and offensive odor of rotten eggs. Long term exposure to H2S is associated with elevated incidences of respiratory infection, eye and nose irritation, coughing, breathlessness, nausea, headaches, and mental symptoms, including depression. Sharer’s figures were at a level considerably higher than the actual levels referenced by the EPA. In April of this year, Twin Pines resident Kendra Pinto collected an air sample near Lybrook Community School. The results were astonishing showing elevated levels of H2S that are known to cause nasal sores.
Among other issues, Teresa also discussed the Counselor Health Impact Assessment Committee’s current report on the impacts of fracking in the region, which was distributed to all committee members.
Hazel talked about the Diné-centered study Hózhóógo na' adá that is on its way to assessing the community impacts of local fracking and drilling operations. The report revealed what the community already knows and experiences--family divisions and fractured families, imbalances and disharmony with the natural world, and a host of other issues directly related to oil and gas development.
Mario also described the impacts and social erosion caused by fracking.
After the presentation, a few committee members reflected on what was presented. Among them, Democratic Representative Elizabeth Thompson made a commitment to fully support the needs of the community and to support in anyway she can. Democratic Senator William Soules agreed that marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted by development. Republican Senator William Sharer, seemingly the odd man out, stressed the importance of jobs provided by the industry and felt the presentation lacked a balance between industry and community welfare. What imbalance exists when people suffer, tribal consultation is ignored, and sacred landscapes are destroyed all in the name of bailing out a dying fossil fuel industry?
Communities living in Greater Chaco have made it clear that they experience increased levels of asthma and cancer, air contamination due to venting, flaring and leaks of toxic air emissions, destroyed roads and unsafe traveling conditions, dust pollution, the desecration of sacred landscapes, and much more. We must push back and fight when our communities and cultural heritage are under attack.
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Health and Safety Impact Report: Oil and Gas Well Exposure 2015 - 2017