As the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) contemplates expanding fracking operations in northern New Mexico, the Navajo and Pueblo peoples who have lived there for centuries are fighting back, fearing the destruction of sacred artifacts as well as serious public health risks to communities already ravaged by COVID-19.
While the pandemic has slowed the push for drilling (in a last-minute concession, BLM agreed to delay public hearings until the end of September), residents remain deeply anxious about a plan that “could lease land in the region for some 3,000 new wells—many of which would be for fracking oil and gas,” writes The Guardian.
Known as the Mancos-Gallup Amendment, the plan would place fracking operations dangerously close to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park—“a network of historic archaeological sites that today hold UNESCO World Heritage status and are of spiritual importance to Navajo and Puebloan people in the region.”
The battle against the amendment is “something of a last stand” for the communities and the environmental activists fighting alongside them, as “at least 90% of public lands in northern New Mexico are already leased for oil and gas drilling,” adds The Guardian.
While Chaco Park itself has congressional protection, some 250 outlying sites are potentially imperilled by fracking, said Michelle Turner, an archaeologist studying the region. While archaeologists do not yet fully understand how fracking may affect such sites, she said there is little doubt horizontal drilling with water and chemicals is “more destructive than traditional, vertical wells.”
Health and safety concerns, too, are welling up in the community.
“The spectre of drilling’s dangers became real in 2016 when oil tanks owned by WPX Energy exploded near Nageezi, New Mexico, causing a huge fire that burned for days,” writes The Guardian. Add to that complaints from residents about headaches and nausea, along with fears over potential neurodevelopmental effects in children from the methane that is regularly flared from working wells—or leaks from orphaned ones.
The Guardian notes that “a vast cloud of methane” hangs over a large swath of northwestern New Mexico—including Chaco Park. The region sits over a 75-million-year-old natural oil and gas field that’s studded with wells, some abandoned and leaking, some actively flaring. According to a 2016 study by NASA, the cloud is the largest concentration of methane over the U.S.
But despite this evident toxic footprint, BLM “is often unclear about the health and environmental risks of drilling,” said Mario Atencio, a Navajo organizer who works with the environmental group Diné Care.
Atencio noted that many residents who give consent for BLM to lease their land for drilling believe they are signing up for an older and safer kind of vertical drilling—“like the Beverly Hillbillies,” he said. Atencio described BLM’s disinclination to be forthright as “the very definition [of] environmental racism and environmental injustice.”
And the region has already seen more than enough injustice—the effects of the coronavirus being only the latest manifestation. “The Navajo Nation and surrounding areas have some of the highest per capita infection rates in the world,” writes The Guardian. “Environmental organizers are concerned that air pollution in the region will exacerbate the death toll.”