Refinery To Blame For Grime and Illness Over the Years, Residents Say
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."