Aneth's Fight Against Big Oil
Important documents on health effects of pollution
Aneth's Fight Against Big Oil | 435 651-3170 | Location | | Utah Dine Bikeya Committee Mission Statement | Important documents on health effects of pollution

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Date: Tue, 18 Apr 2006


 Aneth Navajo longs for the clean, healthy days, before oil flowed
By Jesse Harlan Alderman Special to The Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune

 ANETH - A few hundred feet from her three-room hogan in the shadow
of an ExxonMobil oil refinery and a tall, hissing flare, Emma Begay
buried her son.     Weeks later, oil spilled into the burial site from a ruptured
pipeline, blanketing the grave under a black film.     Workers came and removed the oil-contaminated soil and covered
it with new dirt. But the earth atop the grave is still tarred with
oil.     "The air was clean before all this oil was moved in. There was
vegetation right here," Begay says through an interpreter, pointing
to a barren flat where chickens bob up and down among littered
appliances and a rusted pickup truck.     "Now when you go down to the creek you see tracks of salt and
slime. It's slick. When the wind blows, you can smell the air."    A discovery drilling rig first struck oil in Aneth in 1956, and
since then the field has produced 420 million barrels of oil and 370
billion cubic feet of natural gas, and, according to federal and
tribal environmental officials, also has created one of Utah's most
troublesome oil fields.    Now, residents of this area of the Navajo Reservation are living
with air pollution, spills, noise, dust and health problems in their
remote corner of the West's oil and gas boom that has taken off as
energy prices have soared.    Here, in far southeast Utah, the boom is pitting some local
Navajos against Navajo Nation regulators and elected officials, and
the pollution of the watershed, grazing lands and the air with almost
no compensation against the lease payments that go to the Navajo
government in Window Rock, Ariz.

  Years of distrust: The injection station and companion refinery
visible from Begay's dirt-pocked window are owned by ExxonMobil, the
company that last year netted a $36 billion profit, the highest ever
for an American company.       After dozens of oil spills, members of the Aneth Chapter, the
local governing body of the Navajo Nation, are wary of the aquifer
that feeds their underground wells.      Like most of the nearly 1,000 Navajos living in the Paradox
Basin, Begay hauls water in 55-gallon drums for cooking and
nourishing her sheep. The water comes from Cortez, Colo., about 50
miles away.      In the past three years, the Environmental Protection Agency's
regional office in San Francisco, which oversees southern Utah, has
fined ExxonMobil and the field's other primary operator, Chevron
Corp., more than $8 million for violations in the Aneth field.    
In addition to millions of dollars slated for improvements,
ExxonMobil and Chevron both pledged large sums to build a pipeline to
remote homes cut off from drinking water.      The years of neglect have left scars on the Aneth area in the
form of rusted pipelines, abandoned wells and lingering health
concerns, said Dave Basinger, an EPA engineer active in the field's
cleanup. But the days of reckless spilling and lax supervision have
passed, he said.      "Going back in the years, there was less regulation," he said
from San Francisco. "The history is people don't trust these
companies because they have not had to pay attention like they do
now. The Navajos are becoming more astute."

  Banding together:  Last year, Aneth-area Navajos formed an
environmental group, the Utah Diné Bikeyah Committee. Diné Bikeyah
means Navajo lands.   The group is calling for environmental concessions from oil
companies leasing lands in the Aneth field and demanding millions of
dollars in back payments to the Aneth Chapter, claiming money from
the EPA settlements should be spent locally and not by the Navajo
Nation on projects across the reservation.     The demands come as environmental regulation by the Navajo
Nation is at a crossroads.     The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency is about to
receive an unprecedented degree of authority to enforce its own
regulations under provisions of the 2005 Federal Energy Bill.    
But Aneth activists fear the tribe may do little better than the
federal EPA in regulating pollution.    The government in Window Rock, says Helen Archie, co-founder of
the Utah Diné Bikeyah Committee, has unveiled a proposal that opens
the door to increased drilling.       On Feb. 21, the Navajo Nation Resources Committee put a bill
before the Navajo Nation Council to request $200,000 from the Bureau
of Indian Affairs for a seismic survey to determine to what extent
more oil drilling is feasible in a 42-square-mile tract near Aneth.

  A hope for more jobs: Because of the impoverished tribe's bleak
fiscal picture, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. has invited
development of a $2.2 billion power plant in New Mexico, and more
coal mining and oil and gas drilling.      While Shirley is mindful of the Aneth Chapter's concerns,
boosting the coffers of the Nation's 110 chapters is the priority,
said spokesman George Hardeen.      "You need to bring in the whole economic picture on the Navajo
Nation," Hardeen said. "Our biggest export is cold cash. With a weak
economy, you need to do anything to stimulate jobs."      Tribal elder Annie Oldman said the tribe has sacrificed the
health of its members in the name of oil royalties.     Oldman has lived a few hundred feet from ExxonMobil facilities
her entire life. She says she suffers from chronic headaches, asthma
and hypertension - ailments that never touched her parents and
grandparents who lived here before the oil boom.      Oldman complains that ExxonMobil technicians speed down Aneth's
rock-cobbled roads in shiny white pickups. Yet, she says, the company
and the tribe refuse to pay medical bills, refuse to pave the road
and refuse to contribute any funds other than annual $350 nuisance
fees to affected people.       "We asked ExxonMobil to help us with the road, but they would
not," she said. "Superior [purchased by Exxon in 1984] used to help
us. They would grade the road, but Exxon tells us there's no money
all the time."      Susan Reeves, an ExxonMobil spokeswoman in Houston said the
company is continually improving its flaring equipment and performing
maintenance throughout the field to curtail oil spills and limit
emissions.         The EPA settlements, she said, were the "most appropriate
long-term solution for the area." But she added in an e-mail that the
pacts do not "constitute an admission of either any facts or liability
by the company."

  Local demands: In about 15 interviews with Navajos in the Aneth
area, tribal members lashed out at oil companies. Some mentioned a
refinery explosion in 1997 that spurred a mass evacuation.     
Others complained of sick livestock and animals that drink from
open oil pits.      Susie Philemon, co-founder of the Utah Diné Bikeyah Committee,
said as a child she picked up mercury from well sites and rubbed it
on her jewelry to make it shiny.      In 1978, a group of Navajos took over Texaco's main pump
station in Aneth and halted production.      Today, through resolutions passed by the Aneth Chapter, the
Utah Diné Bikeyah Committee is arguing environmental oversight should
bypass Navajo environmental agencies.     In September, the chapter demanded funding from the Navajo
Nation for independent environmental surveys and health testing for
all Aneth residents.    Subsequent resolutions demand the Navajo government funnel all
money received from EPA settlements directly to Aneth. Another calls
on the Navajo Nation to provide $10 million for the Aneth Chapter to
develop its own environmental regulations under the new oversight
powers afforded by the federal 2005 energy bill.       "It could have been forgotten, the way they treated our
people," said Zena Archie, Helen Archie's 20-year-old daughter. "This
could have been a new day, a new generation. But what they are doing
now is worse than what we had in the past. They are killing off our
elderly, slowly, and we're next."

   Hope for the future: At her kitchen table, spread with a stack of
coupons and a transistor radio, Emma Begay said she is too old to join
the nascent political movement in Aneth.     Still, the new generation, she hopes, will restore the land to
the condition before drilling.     Then she turns toward the window and whispers:      "Because this is not a pretty place." 

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