Chaco Canyon is an ancient sacred Indian archaeological site in northwestern New Mexico. It is an incredible window into the past. Chaco Culture National Historical Park has the densest and most exceptional concentration of pueblos in the American Southwest featuring an 11th century ceremonial great house. Historians say it was inhabited from about 850 A.D. to 1150 A.D. by thousands of people.
On January 25, an online auction was held for oil and gas drilling leases of public lands surrounding the park. Four parcels totaling approximately 843 acres are being proposed as drilling sites by the Bureau of Land Management. The bidding produced nearly $3 million in revenue for the agency and the state of New Mexico. But the Navajo people living in the area aren’t happy, and are protesting.
“We are concerned about our health. My mom wakes up with a headache every morning. On top of that, we have safety concerns,” said Kendra Pinto, a Chaco protector and citizen of the Navajo Nation who lives on one of the parcels that was auctioned near the Twin Hills area about 20 miles from Chaco Canyon. “These drills create a lot of pollution. There’s a drill five miles from my house and it’s loud. I can hear it at night.”
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Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses high-pressure liquids to extract oil and gas from deep down in the Earth’s rock beds. It is controversial and has been linked to the increase in earthquakes in some areas, contaminated groundwater and the production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
These four parcels are part of the last 10 percent of parcels to be leased in the Chaco Canyon area. The other 90 percent has already been leased out for oil and gas drilling.
“Because of our unique checkerboard area you can have a square mile of Navajo trust land and right next to it is public land. That’s why these sites are so close to us. I’ve been to these well sites with a special thermal camera, and you see the [methane] gas leaking 24/7. If we can take care of that it will help our breathing,” said Pinto about a short-term goal that could alleviate some of the health problems in her area of Chaco Canyon.
Donna Hummel is with the Office of Communications for the Bureau of Land Management State Office in Santa Fe. She explained the federal Minerals Leasing Act sets up a process where the industry, the public or the agency can nominate parcels for oil and gas leasing. The BLM manages many or most of the leases in New Mexico. She said industry nominated over 2,100 acres for leasing but only the 843 were put up for sale.
“These parcels are not in Chaco Culture National Historic Park. The nearest of the four parcels that were auctioned off is 19 miles from the main park boundary,” said Hummel. “We work very closely with the National Park Service, as we do with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We’re not operating in a vacuum. We have put in a ten-mile circle around the park where we will not lease any new parcels. We have no evidence that the fracking is affecting the integrity of the national treasures and cultural resources that are found in the park.”
State Rep. Derrick Lente (D-Sandia Pueblo, District 65), plans to introduce a resolution calling for a temporary moratorium until the area’s management plan is in place. “The fracking impacts the people there, especially the Navajo chapters… Most folks are worried about a potential disaster in regards to water and the soil.
“People are concerned that we are basically raping the Mother Earth just for minerals,” said Lente, who was elected to his first term in November. “The people are asking for a comprehensive study looking at all the impacts of fracking – the toll that it takes on the people on Ground Zero. The last thing I want to see happen is water gets contaminated, or there’s an explosion or somebody gets hurt or killed by one of the big rigs.”
“What’s sad is we will never see that money that’s made off this land. Millions and millions of dollars are being made off this area,” said Pinto. “We don’t see any benefits from what’s going on here. It makes me really angry when they say this will help the local economy. A lot of the people who work out here aren’t from here. They’re not even from the state. It’s really annoying.”