Valerie Taliman
Diné women are speaking out and working with environmental groups to get more attention paid to the health and environmental toll of wanton oil and gas exploration on the Navajo Nation.

‘Death in the San Juan Basin’: Navajo Women Combat Unregulated Oil and Gas Exploration

Laura Paskus

Editor’s Note: On Sunday March 8, International Women’s Day, we introduced you to some of the women who are part of the effort to reign in oil and gas development on the Navajo Nation. Today we bring you another one of those women, a daughter who is carrying the torch through to the next generation.

Victoria Gutierrez worries about the future too.

“When I came out and saw what was happening out here—the devastation, oil wells everywhere, fracking, a massive influx of oil and gas people flooding this area—it seems a little lawless,” said Gutierrez, the daughter of activist and elder Sarah Jane White, who is also involved in the effort to curb development pending further study. "People are ravaging with little or no repercussions.

RELATED: On the Front Lines: Diné Women Stand Firm Against Increased, Unfettered Oil Development

Although she knows the development brings money to local people and feeds the state of New Mexico’s budget, she said that the true cost of those benefits are not factored into the equation.

“But what I would like people to understand is our death is not worth your oil,” Gutierrez said. “I think indigenous people, Navajos, we've been pushed around enough.”

Like Gutierrez, some people are taking a stand—and asking more questions.

In November Gutierrez attended a U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) meeting at the elementary school in Lybrook. The agency was studying the possibility of approving a crude oil pipeline that would run to rail lines about 130 miles south of Lybrook.

Representatives from Saddle Butte Pipeline, the BLM, and the state of New Mexico all say that construction of a pipeline will alleviate traffic in the area. But environmental activists and some local Navajos fear that construction of a pipeline will encourage even more development of the Mancos Shale.

“At that meeting, I was very inspired,” said Gutierrez. “People said, ‘No, it's not going to be like that anymore,’ ” she said. “We need more outspoken people to say, ‘No, enough is enough.’ ”

After meeting with environmental activists who also oppose the pipeline and new oil development in the San Juan Basin, the BLM agreed to extend the public comment period on the pipeline—and to hold three more meetings. White, Gutierrez and many other Navajo and Pueblo women attended those public meetings, including one in Santa Fe in mid-January. At that meeting, Gutierrez walked to the front of the room and took the microphone in front of about 140 people.

Admitting that she hadn’t planned to speak, she called one of the pipeline company’s representatives to join her in front of the crowd. Gutierrez challenged how industry has conducted some of its meetings with Navajo people.

“I go around talking to community people, I go door to door, talking to people everywhere, and a lot of people are saying, ‘We didn’t know the repercussions of what we were signing. We didn’t really know the issues that were going on. They gave us a BBQ dinner, they laughed with us and told us everything was going to be okay,’ ” she said. “Well, it's not going to be okay.”

Some families, she said, don’t know what to do now that they’ve signed over their leases and received their one-time bonus checks. As their lands have been cleared, the semi-trucks parked all around, and the wells drilled, people say they didn’t realize what exactly was going to happen.

“I’m from the San Juan Basin,” Gutierrez said to the crowd. “I live right between the Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan (Generating Station). I live in the realm of the pollution. It’s pretty much like death in the San Juan Basin….We don’t want this pipeline, we don’t want no more death, we don’t want no more disease.”

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