Alysa Landry
Four of the Keetso sisters pose with their 91-year-old father and a baby lamb.

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

Alysa Landry

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.


You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page