San Juan County is energy, pollution epicenter

Coal Waste

By Mona Blaber and Norma McCallan

On June 7 and 8, San Juan County members of the Rio Grande Chapter and chapter leaders joined for events focusing on the area’s oil-, gas- and coal-driven economy and how to transition to a healthier and economically vibrant community.

Chapter leaders and allies met with Bureau of Land Management Farmington District administrators about proposed oil and gas leases near Chaco Canyon (see accompanying article), impacts from drilling on public lands and protection of the district’s Badlands.

At a Sierra Club presentation at San Juan College, Mike Eisenfeld of San Juan Citizens Alliance, which works to protect air, land and water for San Juan Basin communities, gave an overview of the area he said President Nixon designated 40 years ago a “sacrifice zone,” with its more than 40,000 natural-gas wells and the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station and Four Corners Power Plant.

While units at both coal plants will be shut within the next few years, others will continue to pump pollution into San Juan County skies (and beyond) indefinitely. Developers are now hyping a possible production boom for Mancos Shale oil and gas in the southern San Juan Basin. Shale development uses multiwell pads with 10 or more wells each. It requires longer drilling times and 5-8 million gallons of water per frack per well. More than half that water is “totally consumed,” which means it is gone forever, according to San Juan Citizens Alliance. For these reasons, San Juan Citizens calls shale development “oil and gas on steroids.”

The EPA has said the oil and natural-gas sector account for 23 percent of U.S. emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas many times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Other gas pollutants include hydrogen sulfide and benzene. “The further degradation of visual quality, air, land and water resources from air pollution imposes high economic costs on the Four Corners region and adversely impacts the health of people who live here,” Eisenfeld said.

Another presenter, rancher Tweeti Blancett, described the damage done by more than 100 wells and thousands of pipelines on her 35,000 acres of federal, private and state grazing land. “At some point you cannot ranch on a ranch that has as many issues as ours does,” Blancett said. “Our ponds were polluted, maybe not because of fracking, maybe because of illegal dumping. They didn’t treat the land with respect.”

Now Blancett ranches a small private parcel and protects 800 acres of federal land by controlling access through the land she and her husband own. But the BLM may now allow drilling on that public land by permitting developers to come through two parcels designated as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.

Another rancher told of land farms, where toxic refinery waste is deposited to be broken down naturally, “growing and growing” in areas where he owns land. Several audience members expressed concern about how to speak out in a community where so many residents’ livelihoods depend on the industries that are damaging residents’ health and resources.

One resident said she felt isolated: “Somehow that outreach has got to get out to people beyond our immediate circle.” Blancett said she will not give in to intimidation. “We are going to stand firm preserving the 800 acres that are archaeological riches. We’ve protected it all of our married life and we will continue to protect it,” Blancett said. “You have to decide whether to get involved.”
“The time is now to increase the dialogue on what economic diversification and sustainability means for our region,” Eisenfeld said.

If you live in northwest New Mexico and would like to work with your neighbors to create solutions in San Juan County, please contact Camilla Feibelman at camilla.feibelman@sierraclub.org, or Dan Lorimier at daniel.lorimier@sierraclub.org, (575) 740-2927.