Residents are demanding rehabilitation after the spill of hydrogen sulfide gas into the Navajo Nation

Montezuma Creek • On the morning of August 10, Parnell Thomas opened his eyes.

The smell of hydrogen sulfide gas was burning his nose and making it harder to fall asleep.

“I can’t breathe,” Thomas says. I was coughing and sneezing.

The windows were opened, and he woke up, his children, and his friends who were sleeping on the top floor. Thomas remembers seeing white fog moving around the house, and as he let everyone out into the fresh air, many babies began to vomit.

Thomas’ family and friends packed up in a car and went to a relative’s house just before dawn. Shortly afterwards, he spoke to his neighbors, who woke up and called in a number of Elk Petroleum workers, the largest operator in the Annette oil field in southern San Juan County.

Thomas has worked in the oil and gas fields from New Mexico to Colorado to Texas for two decades and is often aware of the harmful chemicals in natural gas: it smells like gasoline, volatile organic compounds, and hydrogen sulfide or H2S. Rotten eggs and in large quantities can be deadly.

Thomas says: “If my family is in danger, I will speak. “My goal is really to set up H2S controls on site for community members who live close to the facilities. If something happens that way, we will have an emergency siren warning us to move [from the area]. ”

Ray Ambrose, General Manager of Elk Petroleum, said the leak was caused by a leak in the recovery room at a gas station a few miles from Thomas’ house. Automatic alarm alerted an electrician and the problem was fixed within three hours, he said.

(Rick Egan | Salt Lake Tribune) Parel Thomas inspects some gas lines near his home on Montezuma Creek on Friday, September 17, 2021.

Supervisors with visual and audible warning systems are needed at drilling sites in H2S in Utah. Although Utah regulations do not apply to the Navajo Nation, they have gas detection and warning systems installed in large facilities and processing plants licensed by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Ambrose listened to Thomas’ concerns and promised to add similar systems to “all facilities close to residents, including the one closest to Thomas.” He added that the company will distribute cooling magnets with emergency contact numbers.

“One of the long-held values ​​of the elk is its commitment to the environment, health and safety,” he said.

But San Juan County Commissioner Kenneth Merboy, a Democrat and a Navajo national, said he shared Thomas’ frustration. “If only [Thomas and his family] Were you in a deep sleep? Meriboy asked. “The company assured them it would not happen again. Well, they’ve been there 100 times or more, and it’s still happening. ”

Is it more common to spill over the Navajo Nation?

According to a recent report by the Environmental Fund, methane and related gases are a major problem for the Navajo people. About 5.2% of the natural gas produced on Navajo land is released into the atmosphere, more than double the national average.

The impact of natural gas emissions, combustion or emissions on the Navajo people alone is equivalent to the addition of 400,000 cars a year on the country’s roads, the report said. Elk Petroleum was the largest oil and gas producer in the Navajo Nation in recent years. It has 41% production in 2018.

Authorization and implementation of hydrocarbon works on the Navajo Nation is currently overseen by the EPA office in San Francisco, and gas works on reserve federal, state, and private land are under the control of government regulators. But that may change soon.

“The Navajo people are preparing to create their own small-scale program,” said John Goldstein, director of regulation and legal affairs for the Environmental Fund. “That includes regulations applicable to well sites and facilities such as the Navajo EPA (Navaho National Environmental Protection Agency). [those in the Aneth field]. ”

(Rick Egan | Salt Lake Tribune) Oil and gas pipelines near Montezuma Creek, Friday, September 17, 2021.

If the proposed changes are approved by the Navajo National Government, inspectors will make frequent visits to the reserve, which will increase the chances of repairing damaged pipelines, compression stations, valves and other equipment. (Ambrose Elk utilities said they would be “tested on a regular schedule” and that some devices, including the failed unit, had already been tested daily.)

“Something Colorado has done, and we hope New Mexico will do it [soon]“Looking at wells close to homes and schools and making sure there are plenty of sewer inspections,” Goldstein said.

If the Navajo Nation adopts a small-scale program, it may impose similar requirements, and conventional reserve practices in Colorado and Alaska restrict regular shaking and breathing.

Long-term stress

Billy Dishfet, an oil and gas contractor who lives several miles north of Thomas, is frustrated by the absence of Annette companies and the Navajo capital of Window Rock, Arz.

Dishfaftu said it smells of natural gas emissions every day. “It’s getting worse,” he said. “I live in [Elk Petroleum] Rent, but even people can smell [farther away] In canons. H2S is a toxic gas. We now have problems with our health – all headaches, our bodies are getting tired and tired.

(Leah Houghton | Salt Lake Tribune) The crude oil and production pipeline currently held by Australia’s Elk Petroleum crossed the sandy soil in Montezuma Creek on June 24, 2020.

Annette’s largest oil field has been filled with equipment for over 65 years by its owners, including Exxon, Techco, Chevron, Philips and Mobile.

San Juan County exports 440 million barrels of oil from the field, more than any other county in Utah, generating billions of dollars in profits for various corporations and tribes, states and tens of millions of royalties. Federal Governments. Lease and royalties have been improved several times due to opposition from local residents.

Thomas was a child in 1978, when his father joined hundreds of Navajo workers and activists to demand better labor and environmental protection. It led to a rift in the American Indian movement, and Thomas traveled with his family to Washington, DC, as part of a “long walk.”

After the establishment, the operators agreed on a number of demands, but in 1992 another pipeline broke down and overflowed with crude oil. The owner was compensated for less than $ 1,000. A.D. When a gas explosion occurred in 1997, protesters blocked the access to mobile phones for 72 hours. In 2002, EPA fined Texas $ 400,000 for violating the Water Act.

Knowing this story, Meribboy, the county commissioner, was even more upset when he heard about the recent influx. “I’m so tired, we are being treated like this,” he said. “Racism is alive here. I think the company has to do something about it.

(Leah Houghton | Salt Lake Tribune) Since its inception in the 1950s, the current owner, Elk Petroleum, has long been a major supplier of crude oil in the Great Anne oil field. Above sandy ground, Montezuma Creek, June 24, 2020.

Elk Petroleum, a New York-based asset management company, has become the largest owner in the field since 2017.

“Elk Petroleum is one of the largest private employers in the Navajo Nation and provides significant economic contributions, including taxation, contractor use, and royalties,” said the CEO.

Fifty of the 84 workers are members of the Navajo ethnic group, including 78% of the local worker.

Thomas has run a number of companies that have contracted with operators in the North Navajo area over the years, and he wants the companies to protect the residents and rebuild them for the community.

He pointed out the ways in which both local and maintenance oil workers are using it. In places, vehicles drive directly on exposed pipelines, and everyone in the area has stories of leaks. Some of the ruins of the pipeline decades before Elk Petroleum became a field operator have not been completely cleaned up, and local families have left the land dirty with oil for their goats and sheep.

(Leah Houghton | Salt Lake Tribune) Crude oil pump cracks abound in the Great Annette oil field in Montezuma Creek and San Juan County, June 24, 2020.

Thomas is working with local leaders to address these concerns, and he wants to see Elk agree with aspects of the 32-point agreement with Texas in the 1970s, which includes provisions designed to protect public health and repair roads.

“We live here, and we are not going anywhere,” said Thomas. “all of them [the companies] All they do is earn a ton of money from this land and they don’t care about the people.

Zach Podomor a Report to America He is a member of the “Team” and writes to the Salt Lake Tribune about conflict and change in San Juan County. Your donation to match our RFA gift will help you write stories like this. Please consider any amount of tax-deductible gift today by clicking over here.

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