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Navajo Nation among tribes getting $40M to clean up orphan oil, gas wells

Indigenous communities have long been unduly burdened by environmental pollution.

Now, the Biden administration has sent nearly $40 million to help tribal communities plug and remediate orphaned oil and gas wells.

Nearly $5 million will go to the Navajo Nation to plug an estimated 21 wells.

“It is our responsibility to tackle these harmful impacts and ensure that future generations have access to clean air, drinkable water and healthy, balanced ecosystems,” said Winnie Stachelberg, senior advisor and infrastructure coordinator at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

These legacy pollutants contaminate groundwater, harm wildlife, strew the countryside with rusting, dangerous equipment and contribute to greenhouse emissions to boot.

The department says the $40 million is the first installment of $150 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Work reduces harmful methane leaks

Another $560 million was provided to states in August 2022 to address orphan wells, and nearly $100 million more is earmarked for dealing with the problem on public lands and waters.

The new funds will reduce harmful methane leaks while also supporting tribal nations as they grow their economies, create jobs and improve public safety.

“This is a key component of many of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law programs: building out the infrastructure to equip tribes now and into the future,” said assistant secretary for Indian affairs Bryan Newland, who is an Ojibwe member of the Bay Mills Indian community near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

More than $34 million will go toward well-plugging and remediation, while just under $5 million will fund the capacity-building needed to prep for such activities.

“There's measuring the depth of the wells; there's assessing the type of cement that's going to be needed,” said Stachelberg. “So, there's a lot of work that needs to be done before the actual plugging and sealing takes place.”

In the department’s release, administration officials emphasized the leadership role played by the tribal communities.

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Nicholas Gerbis joined KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk in 2016. A longtime science, health and technology journalist and editor, his extensive background in related nonprofit and science communications inform his reporting on Earth and space sciences, neuroscience and behavioral health, and bioscience/biotechnology.Apart from travel and three years in Delaware spent earning his master’s degree in physical geography (climatology), Gerbis has spent most of his life in Arizona. He also holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and a bachelor’s degree in geography (climatology/meteorology), also from ASU.Gerbis briefly “retired in reverse” and moved from Arizona to Wisconsin, where he taught science history and science-fiction film courses at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is glad to be back in the Valley and enjoys contributing to KJZZ’s Untold Arizona series.During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gerbis focused almost solely on coronavirus-related stories and analysis. In addition to reporting on the course of the disease and related research, he delved into deeper questions, such as the impact of shutdowns on science and medicine, the roots of vaccine reluctance and the policies that exacerbated the virus’s impact, particularly on vulnerable populations.