The ‘What Ifs’ of Fracking: Navajos Wonder Whether Chemicals Are Deforming Their Livestock

A lamb is born with a fatal deformity, and Navajos in remote community wonder whether fracking chemicals are to blame.

It took Dorothy Keetso only a few minutes to realize the baby lamb was fatally deformed.

The animal, born June 6, nursed from a bottle and followed on Keetso’s heels as she moved through her family’s home in the small Navajo community of Counselor, New Mexico. The lamb’s belly swelled with milk, Keetso said—and kept swelling. Born without a rectum, the animal was unable to defecate. She died a week later.

The death was a blow to a family of six adult siblings who care for their elderly father and depend on sheep for survival. The family expected the lamb—itself worth about $250 at market—to reproduce and replenish the herd. Its death will cost the family exponentially over the coming years, Keetso said through an interpreter.

“This is our fourth generation of ewes from sheep we raised ourselves,” she said. “This is the first time there has been a birth defect. Every ewe has the prospect of raising so many other lambs through the years, but this one will not bring any return.”

A Legacy of Land

For generations the Keetso family has lived on the same plot of land in this remote part of the Navajo Nation. Residents in this small community 100 miles north of Albuquerque have little need to speak English and sometimes go for days without interacting even with their closest neighbors.

The Keetso siblings were raised in a one-room hogan that still stands near their tiny home. Houses out here are dots along a network of dirt roads, and many are not connected to running water or electricity.

But stark changes have come to this sleepy community during the decade since Encana Oil & Gas drilled the first horizontal well in the San Juan Basin and introduced hydraulic fracturing to the area. Now this patchwork stretch of earth—divided into plots of federal, state, private and tribally owned land—is pockmarked with drills, pumps, wells and pipelines.

A slight breeze delivers a thick, chemical smell noticeable even inside Keetso’s home. She points to a pump jack operating one-quarter of a mile away and seven or eight more within a three-mile radius.

“There’s been two times this year so far when semis have tipped over and spilled chemicals into the earth,” she said. “All night and all day these people are working out here.”

Three major companies are actively drilling and developing the San Juan Basin, a 4,600-square-mile area encompassing much of northwest New Mexico. The basin supports more than 23,000 active wells, and companies have introduced heavy traffic, controversial extraction techniques and unknown contaminants to some of the most remote communities in the area.

Keetso called her lamb the first casualty—if not of the extraction industry itself, then certainly of the collision of special interests on the land. The death raises questions of “what if,” she said. “What if our land is being contaminated? What if oil and gas are killing our livestock?”

Keetso’s questions come as various stakeholders wrangle over the long-term effects of oil and gas production. In the Eastern Navajo Agency especially, where land ownership looks like a checkerboard, residents sometimes get the least input, and communities like Counselor are caught in the crosshairs of a battle between environmentalists and the extraction industry.

A Battle for Energy

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the entity charged with issuing leases, believes in “multiple uses of the land,” said Dave Mankiewicz, assistant field manager for the BLM’s Farmington, New Mexico, field office. The office oversees 1.4 million acres of minerals on BLM land and another 3.6 million acres of split estate, where the surface land is owned by another entity.

“We have grazing leases that are active throughout the area,” Mankiewicz said. “On the same pieces of land we have livestock, wildlife, timber, firewood permits and energy extraction. The land has multiple uses.”

One hundred percent of the land is leased, mainly to drilling companies using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (known as fracking) to release oil from the Mancos Shale Formation, Mankiewicz said. Federal leases allow companies to explore and drill for oil and gas deposits for 10 years. Leases can be extended indefinitely if the wells begin producing.

But energy exploration is coming ahead of investigations into the long-term effects of fracking, said Mike Eisenfeld, energy and climate programs manager for San Juan Citizens Alliance, a grassroots group of citizens seeking to protect the area from the impacts of unchecked energy development.

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Eisenfeld said the BLM has employed a “leap before you look” strategy for extraction in New Mexico, where there are nearly 60,000 active oil and gas wells—with high concentrations in the northwest corner and on Navajo land.

“There seems to be this philosophy of drill here, drill everywhere, and the BLM will look the other way,” he said.

Photo: Alysa Landry

Energy companies drill into the earth during the exploratory phase of oil and gas production.

The alliance in 2015 filed a lawsuit against the BLM and the Interior Department, claiming the federal agencies failed to analyze the impacts of fracking prior to granting leases for that purpose.

“They’re injecting nitrogen, chemicals and water into the earth in this living community,” Eisenfeld said. “Our concerns are about the impacts. It will be pretty difficult right now to prove that abnormalities to livestock or human beings are linked to fracking, but there should be a moratorium until there’s an investigation.”

The environmental advocacy groups Clean Air Task Force and Earthworks released a report this month that found people living within a half-mile of oil and gas productions face a higher risk of cancer and respiratory diseases. In New Mexico, more than 145,000 residents are potentially at risk, along with 89 schools and four medical centers located near oil and gas wells, where methane and organic chemical emissions are most potent, the report states.

Companies, however, are waiting for the results of a major study by the National Science Foundation, due out in 2018, that may address the environmental and health effects of fracking. By then, the damage may be done, Eisenfeld said.

“What we’re looking at is the highly calculated impact of ignorance,” he said. “They have a new technology that allows for horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, and they’re moving forward without doing an analysis first. Out there, we have sheep, water, medicinal plants—the very culture of the Navajo people—and the companies don’t give a rat’s ass.”

What If?

As exploration and extraction continue in the Eastern Navajo Agency, scientists across the region are taking a closer look at fracking. Jens Blotevogel, a research assistant professor at Colorado State University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, recently released a study on the potential agricultural impacts of fracking.

The study recommends additional scrutiny of spills on agricultural land.

“There are so many chemicals that are used in fracking,” Blotevogel said. “We know what’s going into the ground, but we don’t always know what’s coming back. Chemicals are injected into the ground, but all that gets mixed together, and our studies show that new compounds are formed down the hole. What we’re trying to figure out is whether those chemicals, when they are spilled, are being taken up by plants and what are the potential impacts of that.”

The bottom line, Blotevogel said, is that the agricultural impacts are not yet known.

“So far it’s a bit speculative,” he said. “There are a lot of things we don’t fully understand yet. We do know that the compounds that come from down-hole are potentially toxic. Some are known to cause cancer. What we don’t know is whether those compounds are taken into plants, and what the effects might be if the plants are consumed by humans or livestock.”

But Navajo residents—many of whom have lived in the area for generations—have no problem linking subtle changes in the land and livestock to the extraction industry.

“Full-scale development started in 2013, with the tanks, the pumps, the pipelines, all the traffic,” said Sam Sage, community services coordinator for Counselor. “Now we’re starting to see the impacts. I hear complaints about changes in the soil, in the plants. There are places where things won’t grow anymore.”

One of the first to learn about the Keetsos’ deformed lamb, Sage said fears in this corner of the Navajo Nation are intensifying as fracking continues.

“The lamb might be a casualty,” he said. “If we see more of the same, maybe with lambs or goats or horses, then we know it’s a result of fracking. This may be what happens when we have extraction and grazing on the same land.”