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Exploding Fire Consumes Oil Field in San Juan Basin; Cause Unknown

A fire that exploded and consumed 36 storage tanks on an oil field on Navajo land is being investigated.

A fire that consumed storage tanks at an oil field in New Mexico is slowly burning out, and a WPX Energy spokesperson has apologized to dozens of Navajo Nation citizens who had to evacuate their homes.

“We’re deeply sorry for the lives interrupted,” said WPX Energy spokesperson Kelly Swan, after 55 homes had to be evacuated. “The Navajo Nation is an important stakeholder.”

The fire broke out in a series of explosions on Monday, July 11 at 10:15 pm at WPX Energy’s West Lybrook six-well-pad unit, a five-acre oil production site on Highway 550 near Nageezi, New Mexico, in San Juan County.

As of 7:30 a.m. on July 14 the fire, which WPX officials had hoped would burn itself out in a matter of hours, was ongoing, according to San Juan County spokesperson Michele Truby-Tillen.

“Fire department personnel are on the scene this morning working on a plan,” Truby-Tillen said, adding that while some evacuees had been allowed home, others will have to wait. “Evacuees will be allowed to return to their homes when fire chief Craig Daugherty feels that its safe for them to go back.”

All of the 36 storage tanks, 30 holding oil and six a mix of water and hydrocarbon, caught fire and burned, according to Swan. Chemical foam was the only alternative to letting the fire burn itself out, but the decision was made not to use it “because of the great risk to responders, and because foam could carry oil products outside of the perimeter,” Swan said.

Personnel from five local agencies are monitoring the fire, though Rosalita Whitehair, director of emergency management for the Navajo Nation, said that her office is currently not one of them. WPX said it has “mobilized environmental contractors to conduct air screenings with FLIR infrared cameras and photo ionization detectors.”

Full environmental impacts on air and water quality will be assessed once the fire has burned out and the site has cooled off, officials said.

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“WPX Energy will have to remediate the area once the fire has stopped, in accordance with federal and state regulations,” said Beth Wojahn, New Mexico Oil Conservation Department’s media spokeswoman. NMOCD, which approved WPX’s application to develop the site last September, will monitor remediation.

The company does not know how much oil burned off.

“That will be part of the investigation,” Swan said. “Our priority is public safety.”

The environmental group Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Diné CARE) said the incident was proof that fracking has no place on Navajo land.

“The event demonstrates the increasing dangers of modern fossil fuel development, highlights the environment damage of the industry, and serves as a sobering reminder of the urgent need to build safe, clean renewable energy in place of fossil fuels,” the group said in a statement.

The New Mexico Environment Department said it is keeping abreast of developments.

“Protecting the quality of that air that we breathe and notifying New Mexicans of dangerous conditions is a top priority for the New Mexico Environment Department,” said New Mexico Environment Department spokesperson Allison Scott Majure.

But many on the Navajo Nation do not feel that that is the case.

“For years, our community has dealt with the impacts of this industry—the noise, the light, the air pollution, and knowing that each well drilled locks in years of climate changing pollution,” said Samuel Sage, Counselor Chapter Community Services Coordinator, in the Diné CARE statement. "But today, we reached the end of our rope as we watched the biggest disaster yet pollute the skies and blacken the earth.”