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A Navajo cattle-raising family is calling for oversight after an oil spill in Shiprock, New Mexico

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Beverly Maxwell is busy tending to her menagerie of farm animals atop her hilly homestead overlooking an 1,800-foot-tall monadnock, known by most as Shiprock Peak.

“Now, I’ll let you out,” said Maxwell, unlocking a metal gate enclosing a newborn beef calf she had just delivered in January. “She’s right there.”

This remote area was once a sprawling property fit for cattle raising before last December when a Navajo Nation-owned pipeline got punctured while an operator graded Indian Route 5071 in Shiprock, New Mexico.

More than 1,000 barrels of crude oil were spilled in the agriculturally dependent community of Shiprock near the Four Corners.

Navajo farmers and ranchers living around that contaminated site near the San Juan River have raised concerns over the long-lasting environmental and ecological impacts on vegetation and groundwater.

Remediation efforts are still underway, and calls for independent oversight since the Maxwell family’s ranching way of life has been derailed. Her permitted grazing lands have suddenly morphed into a construction site after the spill.

Neon pink flags fluttered in the wind, marking where clumps of oil could once be visibly seen before it seeped into the soil while the snow melted away.

About 1,700 cubic yards of contaminated soil, or almost 2,400 tons, have been excavated from this site. It carved a massive man-made trench into the earth. Maxwell shared she’s even lost count of how many times trucks hauled in and out. 

“It literally infiltrated a few feet down and then sideways,” said Maxwell. “That’s why if you look at that trench, from the time we walked it, that trench is bigger, it’s huge.”

The Farmington, New Mexico-based Envirotech, an environmental consulting company, has been contracted out to use that soil for landfarming, a bioremediation technology that uses aeration to gradually break down petroleum hydrocarbons in the dirt.

As an agricultural extension agent at Diné College, Maxwell has insisted that it’s no longer safe for those cows to feed off grasses, so close to where crude oil seeped into the snowy soil. 

So now, each day, her youngest of three sons, Jake, has been mounting a horse bareback and hurriedly galloping down the hillside to round up their cattle herd grazing in a neighbor’s field, only to drive them back up, right before the sun goes down.

“There is so much pressure, it’s beyond comprehension,” said Maxwell. “If you’re not the impacted primary land user, and if you don’t understand raising livestock, you’re not going to get it.”

Driving cattle is tough since they really have a mind of their own. And with each mature cow weighing around 1,400 pounds, she’s got a sizable herd to handle, while adding an arduous task for an aging Maxwell and her family.

“And the very little bit of grazing area we have left, right here, is even more impacted, and it’s so hard to manage these cows already,” added Maxwell. “And now with this, I’m trying to figure out where can we put the cows, so that we can keep going.” 

Plans to reseed this impacted area are already underway following recent consultation from the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Division of Natural Resources. Yet, no timeline has been set for when it will be completed, but it could take years.

“And hopefully, we get the vegetation to take root,” Stephen Etsitty, Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency executive director,  told KJZZ News. “It’s going to need some time to recover, can't have animals coming back in and grazing on the vegetation that only is going to go through its first growing season this year.”

"We definitely want to restore that impacted soil prior to the release of this crude oil," added Etsitty. "We're paying particular attention to restoring the channel that was excavated."

Maxwell’s family and her distant neighbors claimed that they haven’t been routinely notified throughout this entire process and felt that the Navajo EPA is incapable of remediating the spill site without additional, independent oversight. 

“We have handled spills of this size, so we have quite a bit of experience,” said Etsitty. “While this incident did highlight some current weaknesses at Navajo EPA, I will say that it was primarily in the communications portion.” 

Etsitty’s admittedly understaffed agency has come under harsh scrutiny for its lack of transparency in the aftermath.

“And so I have directly apologized to some of the family members out there who had this complaint,” added Etsitty, “that they didn’t have access to information immediately.”

To this day, Maxwell still hadn’t obtained physical copies of any reports about the spill filed by the Shiprock Chapter, Running Horse Pipeline or Navajo EPA, despite being one of the primary land users harmed by this accident.

Months later, Etsitty made a site visit in March. He met with Maxwell and other Shiprock locals alongside Running Horse Pipeline vice president Joseph Robertson, who failed to answer several requests for comment about the company’s ongoing remediation efforts.

“While we were out there in March, we didn’t see too much grazing activity. Of course, there was a lot of construction going on,” said Etsitty. “As far as the current use in grazing, I was never told how many animal units are permitted in that area.” 

The burst pipeline stretches 87 miles from the Aneth oil field in Utah to New Mexico. It’s supervised by Running Horse Pipeline, a subsidiary of the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company, which is also in charge of containment and cleanup.

With an estimated 40% of the Navajo Nation’s revenues deriving from coal, oil and natural gas, the Nation deeply relies on this extractive, fossil fuel industry.

“This extent of the release, as we now know,” explained Etsitty, “spans a little under 2,000 linear feet, from where the line was broken to where the oil came to rest in one of the channels nearby. They released 1,010.5 barrels of crude oil and they recovered 930 barrels.” 

Meaning, only 80 barrels seeped into the ground, but initial figures estimated that up to 1,500 barrels were released. 

That drastic deviation by more than a third immediately raised the eyebrows of Maxwell and others most affected by the accident. But Etsitty pressed that it shouldn’t cause worry, even though the Navajo EPA is relying on numbers provided by Running Horse Pipeline, which hadn’t responded to requests for an interview.

“Of course, as we continue to do the oversight and the cleanup, those numbers were refined,” said Etsitty. “All the proper calculations were done by the folks there.”

Right after the spill, Maxwell’s chapter house unanimously passed a resolution calling for state and federal oversight from the U.S. EPA and New Mexico EPA, while also citing distrust of Running Horse, Navajo EPA and even their own local chapter leaders.

But Shiprock leaders have refused to sign or enforce it, blaming the Navajo Nation Department of Justice as the reason behind the hold-up since this resolution needed to undergo a legal review. 

In an email sent by Shiprock Chapter’s community services coordinator Michele Peterson to Maxwell, she wrote: “Per the Navajo Nation DOJ: ‘Upon review of the language for the resolution submitted on Jan. 10, 2024, Chapter meeting item F, does not meet the chapter requirements and has been deemed a personal interest matter. It appears the real party in interest is a private person not the chapter. Due to this review the chapter officials cannot sign this resolution.’”

However, Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch confirmed to KJZZ News that her team at the Navajo Nation DOJ “did not author any such opinion.”

Repeated attempts for comment went unanswered by several Shiprock chapter officials, including the president, grazing official, community services coordinator and San Juan River Farm Board representative.

To this day, Shiprock Chapter leaders still haven’t signed that same resolution that had been passed unanimously by their community more than four months ago. Another similar resolution had been brought forth with support following that previous one, but later tabled by Shiprock Chapter officials.

“And this is why an investigation needs to happen,” said Maxwell, since this mess left her frustrated, unsatisfied, and with unusable land. “We’re trying to ask for that independent oversight, somebody that’s not Navajo, that can investigate the cause and effects for accountability and transparency.”

Although Etsitty has expressed that Navajo EPA is capable of handling this spill on its own, the U.S. EPA told KJZZ News in a statement that it remains “a committed partner to the Navajo Nation and will consider any request for additional support.”

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.