Tanker trucks tear past a yellow school zone sign. On one side of the road, five oil wells are clustered around a pad. On the other, a mere half-mile away, students sit in class, expected to learn amid the din and the odor.
Early-morning fog lifts from the valley to reveal an oil well just across Highway 550 from Lybrook Elementary School. There are five oil wells sitting on both federal and state land less than a half-mile from the school. The public school serves 83 students, almost all of whom are Navajo, in kindergarten through eighth grade.
“They’re drilling less than a mile from the school—and they’re also building a fracking wastewater plant right over the hill, less than a mile that way,” said Etta Arviso, who lives nearby in Counselor Chapter.
Just over the hill from the school, another patch of federal land has been cleared down to dirt so that wastewater from oil and gas drilling can be treated and recycled. The company, Basin Water Recycling, did not respond to requests for information, but Beth Wojahn, a spokesperson with the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department—which had to approve the application—said that the facility will reduce the amount of fresh water being used in the area and that it will use above-ground storage tanks and containment ponds with synthetic liners.
Gas drilling started to take off in the San Juan Basin in the 1950s. Thanks to evolving technologies, by 2008 the basin was producing more natural gas than anywhere else in the United States. Today, companies are also trying to figure out how to reach oil trapped within tight shale formations underground. The drilling industry pumps money into the state and many of the communities where people rely on the jobs—or cash from leasing their lands. But some, like Arviso, oppose the new drilling and are worried about hydraulic fracturing.
Here on the eastern Navajo Nation, shale oil wells have popped up alongside homes and roadsides, surrounding communities like Counselor and Ojo Encino. All told, the federal government has approved about 240 new shale oil wells for the San Juan Basin. A coalition of Diné and environmental groups had sued, trying to force the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to complete more environmental studies and incorporate more planning into its approval process. But in August a judge declined to grant a temporary halt to the drilling.
Again, Arviso fears how that facility might affect the school, as well as local water resources and wildlife. In the school’s parking lot, she translates for Rose Yazzie, a Diné elder from Counselor Chapter who speaks in Navajo, occasionally dropping in a few words of English.
“You can smell it when you drive in on the highway, you can smell it,” said Yazzie of the wells.
Two of her grandchildren, aged 7 and 11, attend school here, and she worries about how the wells could affect their health. The effects might not appear today, necessarily, but in the future, when they are older, she fears.
Photo: Courtesy Mike Eisenfeld, San Juan Citizens Alliance
This Google Maps image shows the proximity of an oil rig to an elementary school on the Navajo Nation.
Even when they’re not flaring, the wells release methane, benzene, butane, ethanol and propylene. There are no air quality monitors nearby. According to the New Mexico Environment Department, the closest one is Bloomfield, 50 miles up the highway.
Already the school and its students face plenty of challenges. On its 2014 New Mexico Public Education Department scorecard, the school earned an “F” due to low performance within a number of areas. For example, out of a possible 40 points for current standing—or how well students met targets for their grade level—the school received only 2.21 points.
Arviso said the elementary school used to just be up the road. But it was moved so that students would not be across the highway from a large natural gas plant. The new school was built in 2006. Now, both she and Yazzie wonder why anyone allowed wells to be drilled right here in the first place. So do local groups opposed to the lack of regulation.
“This isn’t right. I don’t see why the state doesn’t have a law or anything in place because it’s hazardous to the children’s health,” she said. “There are a lot of things that come off these wells which they should have highlighted, but of course they won’t do that.”
The area, said Mike Eisenfeld with the San Juan Citizens Alliance, which opposes the lack of regulation, is becoming increasingly industrialized.
"In my mind, they should be siting the well pads in the least sensitive areas and then horizontal drilling,” said Eisenfeld, the alliance's New Mexico Energy Coordinator. “For them to pick this location, right across from Lybrook Elementary is misguided."
New Mexico does, in fact, have siting requirements. Temporary drilling pits can’t be within 300 feet of an occupied permanent residence, school, hospital, institution or church. Produced water recycling facilities can’t be within 1,000 feet.
Susan Avillar, spokesperson for WPX Energy, which is operating the wells, said the company recognizes this is a sensitive location and works hard to control emissions and truck traffic. Currently, WPX has rights to lease about 100,000 acres of federal, state and Navajo allottee lands in the San Juan Basin and has drilled 112 horizontal oil wells in the past three years along the Highway 550 corridor. Vapor recovery units atop the wells capture hydrocarbons and burn them off, Avillar said, so that nothing is emitted into the atmosphere.
“The other thing we’ve done is we pipe everything,” she said. “We pipe the gas, we pipe the oil, and we pipe the water. That eliminates a lot of the larger trucks and the truck traffic.”
WPX has also reached out to emergency responders in the area, said Avillar, so that if there ever is an accident, people will be prepared.
“We work very closely with the school,” Avillar said. “We’re looking into doing some STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] programming with the school.”
The one positive on the school’s state Public Education Department scorecard was in the “opportunity to learn” category. According to the scorecard, the school earned an “A,” which means that it fosters an environment that facilitates learning, that teachers are using recognized teaching methods, and that students want to attend school.
Meanwhile, revenue generated from the wells boosts the state’s coffers. According to Patrick Padilla, assistant commissioner for oil, gas, minerals and royalties at the New Mexico State Land Office, interest in the wells across the from the school generated $822,491 for the state’s common school fund between June 2013 and June 2015.
Brand-new to the school this year, Principal Ivan Tsosie said he is unaware of any concerns with the wells. And the district’s superintendent, Dr. Manuel Medrano, said he has not heard complaints either. But misgivings abound.
"That activity is probably incompatible with being close to where people live and work and go to school,” Eisenfeld said. “It just seems so sad that that risk is accepted. Why do we accept that risk for our children?"