Residents call for reform after hydrogen sulfide gas leak on Navajo Nation

The most historically productive oil and gas field in Utah has long been a major employer on the northern Navajo Nation, but air and ground quality concerns persist.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parnell Thomas checks on some gas lines near his home north of Montezuma Creek, on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021.

Montezuma Creek • It was still dark when Parnell Thomas opened his eyes on the morning of Aug. 10, but he immediately knew something had gone very wrong at the oil and gas field near his home on the northern Navajo Nation.

The stench of hydrogen sulfide gas was burning his nostrils and shaking off the sleep was harder than it should have been.

“I couldn’t breathe,” Thomas said. “I was coughing and kind of dazed.”

He stumbled through the house waking up his kids, who were sleeping on the upper floor with the windows open, and friends who were staying over for the night. Thomas recalls seeing a white haze moving through the house, and by the time he got everyone outside to fresher air, several of the children were vomiting.

Thomas’ family and friends piled into cars and drove to a relative’s house before dawn. Soon afterward, he spoke with neighbors, who were also awakened by the smell, and called several employees of Elk Petroleum, the largest operator in the Aneth oil field in southern San Juan County.

Thomas spent over two decades working in oil and gas fields from New Mexico to Colorado to Texas, and knows about the harmful chemicals often present in natural gas: cancer-causing benzene, volatile organic compounds and hydrogen sulfide, or H2S, which has the odor of rotten eggs and can be deadly at sufficient concentrations.

“If you jeopardize my family, I’m going to speak up,” Thomas said. “My goal is to get H2S monitors set in place for the community members who live really close to the facilities. That way if something ever does happen, we’ll have an emergency siren warning us to move [from the area].”

Elk Petroleum CEO Ray Ambrose said the leak occurred when a vapor recovery unit, which is designed to remove vapors from oil tanks, failed at a production facility a little over a mile from Thomas’ home. An automated alarm warned an Elk employee of the issue and the problem was fixed in under three hours, he said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parnell Thomas checks on some gas lines near his home in Montezuma Creek, on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021.

Monitors with visual and audible warning systems are required at drill sites where H2S is present in Utah. Although Utah state regulations do not apply to the Navajo Nation, which is permitted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Elk Petroleum has gas detection and warning systems installed on its larger facilities and processing plants.

Ambrose said the company has listened to Thomas’ concerns and has committed to adding similar systems to “all facilities in close proximity to residents, including the facility closest to Mr. Thomas’.” He added that the company will distribute refrigerator magnets with emergency contact numbers.

“One of Elk’s long-held values is a commitment to the environment, health and safety,” Ambrose said, “which includes the health and safety of all residents and other stakeholders in the areas where Elk operates.”

But San Juan County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, a Democrat and member of the Navajo Nation, said he shared Thomas’ frustrations. ”What if it had happened when [Thomas and his family] were in a deep sleep?” Maryboy asked. “The company reassured them that it’s not going to happen again. Well, they said that 100 times or more, and it’s still happening.”

Are leaks more common on the Navajo Nation?

Leaking methane and associated gasses are a larger problem on the Navajo Nation than in surrounding states, according to a recent report from the Environmental Defense Fund. It concluded that 5.2% of natural gas produced on Navajo Nation lands is emitted into the atmosphere, which is more than twice the national average.

The climate impact of the natural gas that’s vented, flared or leaked into the air on the Navajo Nation alone is equivalent to adding 400,000 automobiles per year to the nation’s roads, according to the report. Elk Petroleum was the largest oil and gas producer on the Navajo Nation in recent years, accounting for 41% of production in 2018.

Permitting and enforcement of hydrocarbon operations on the Navajo Nation is currently overseen by the EPA office based in San Francisco while gas operations on nonreservation federal, state and private land fall under the jurisdiction of state regulators. But that could soon change.

“The Navajo Nation is in the process of creating their own minor source program,” said Jon Goldstein, director of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund. “That would include regulations that are enforced by the Navajo EPA (Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency) on well sites and facilities like [those in the Aneth field].”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Oil and gas lines near Montezuma Creek, on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021.

If the proposed changes are approved by the Navajo Nation government, it could mean inspectors would make more frequent visits to operations on the reservation, increasing the likelihood that faulty pipelines, compressor stations, valves and other equipment are discovered and fixed. (Ambrose said Elk’s facilities are “inspected and serviced on a regular schedule,” and some equipment, including the unit that failed in August, is already checked daily.)

“One thing that Colorado has done, and that we hope that New Mexico will do [soon],” Goldstein said, “is look at wells that are in close proximity to homes and schools and ensure that they get the most frequent leak inspections.”

If the Navajo Nation takes over the minor source program, it could impose similar requirements, while also limiting the routine flaring and venting of methane, a common practice on the reservation that is banned in Colorado and Alaska.

Long-simmering tensions

Billy Dishface, an oil and gas contractor who lives on a mesa several miles north of Thomas, is disappointed with the lack of action from the companies operating in the Aneth field and by the Navajo Nation capital in Window Rock, Ariz.

Dishface said he smells emissions from natural gas production on a daily basis. “It’s getting worse,” he said. “I live in the [Elk Petroleum] lease, but people can even smell it [farther away] in the canyons. H2S is poison gas. … Now we have problems with our health — all the headaches, our bodies getting weaker and weaker.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crude oil and production liquid pipelines, currently owned by Elk Petroleum of Australia, crisscross the sandy soil throughout Montezuma Creek, June 24, 2020.

The greater Aneth oil field is littered with equipment from the 65 years the field has been in production under a string of owners, including Exxon, Texaco, Chevron, Phillips and Mobil.

San Juan County has exported 440 million barrels of oil from the field, more than any other county in Utah, producing billions of dollars in profits for the various corporations that have drilled it and tens of millions of dollars in royalties paid to tribal, state and federal governments. The leasing and royalty systems have been reformed several times over the years as a result of tense protests led by local residents.

Thomas was a child in 1978 when his father joined hundreds of Navajo workers and activists who occupied a Texaco complex to demand better labor and environmental protections. It led to a standoff that attracted members of the American Indian Movement, and Thomas traveled with his family to Washington, D.C., as part of the “Longest Walk,” a protest that drew the support of celebrities like Muhammad Ali.

Operators agreed to many of the group’s demands after the standoff, but in 1992, another protest was sparked when a pipeline ruptured and covered a house with crude oil. The owner was offered less than $1,000 in compensation. When an oil field explosion occurred in 1997, protesters blocked the road to Mobil offices for 72 hours. In 2002, the EPA fined Texaco $400,000 for violating the Clean Water Act in the region.

Knowing that history made Maryboy, the county commissioner, even more frustrated when he heard about the latest leak. “I’m so fed up, us being treated like that,” he said. “Racism is alive here. I think the company needs to do something about it.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crude oil spills have been plentiful throughout the Greater Aneth Oil Field since the 1950s, long before the current owner, Elk Petroleum, purchased the reserves in 2017. Still, oil clumps from previous spills can be found atop the sandy soil, above, in Montezuma Creek, June 24, 2020.

Elk Petroleum, which is owned by the New York-based asset management firm AllianceBernstein, has been the largest owner in the field since 2017.

“Elk Petroleum is one of the largest private employers on the Navajo Nation and provides tremendous economic contributions including taxes, contractor use and royalties,” Ambrose, the CEO, said.

Fifty of its 84 employees are members of the Navajo Nation, he added, including 78% of its local workforce.

Thomas ran several companies over the years that worked on the northern Navajo Nation, contracting with operators in the Aneth field, and he would like to see the companies do more to protect residents and give back to the community.

He pointed to roads that are used by both local residents and oil field workers that have fallen into disrepair. In places, vehicles drive directly over exposed pipelines, and everyone in the area has stories of encountering spills. Some larger pipeline ruptures, which date back decades before Elk Petroleum was an operator on the field, still haven’t been fully cleaned up, leaving oil-stained earth where local families graze their goats and sheep.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crude oil pump jacks are plentiful throughout Montezuma Creek and the Greater Aneth Oil Field in San Juan County, June 24, 2020.

Thomas is working with local leaders to voice these concerns, and he would like to see Elk agree to aspects of a 32-point agreement made with Texaco in the 1970s, which included provisions designed to protect public health and keep roads repaired.

“We live here, and we’re not going nowhere,” Thomas said. “All [the companies] are doing is just making tons of money off of this land and they don’t care about the people.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.