In Puerto Rico, residents wait for accountability, cleanup of toxic coal ash ‘caminos blancos’

In Puerto Rico, residents wait for accountability, cleanup of toxic coal ash ‘caminos blancos’

The nearly 14 million people of color who live in rural America face unique challenges that run the gamut — from industry land grabs to struggles with broadband and a lack of representation in business and in government that makes it near impossible for many to cultivate generational wealth. This six-part series from the Rural News Network, with support from the Walton Family Foundation, elevates the issues these communities are facing and what some are doing to change their fates.

SALINAS, Puerto Rico — After Sol Piñeiro retired from bilingual special education in New Jersey public schools, she bought a dream house in Salinas on Puerto Rico’s south coast, near the town where she was born.

She and her husband built a traditional Puerto Rican casita beside the main home and filled the sprawling yard with orchids, cacti and colorful artifacts, including a bright red vintage pickup truck.

Only after setting up her slice of paradise here did she learn the road running alongside it contained toxic waste from a nearby power plant.

Salinas is one of 14 municipalities around the island that between 2004 and 2011 used coal ash as a cheap material to construct roads and fill land. The material is a byproduct of burning coal and is known to contain a long list of toxic and radioactive chemicals. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not specifically regulate coal ash until 2015, and those regulations don’t cover the coal ash used in roads like that in Salinas.

Any community with a coal-burning power plant likely has tons of toxic coal ash stored somewhere nearby, in pits, ponds or piles. In 2015, the EPA announced new rules requiring groundwater testing and safer storage and disposal methods, but the rules exempt power companies from responsibility for ash dispersed for use in road building and other projects.

Scant or nonexistent recordkeeping makes comprehensively mapping this scattered coal ash impossible, but environmental and public health advocates suspect the material is likely contaminating groundwater and causing toxic dust across the United States.

Perhaps nowhere is the problem as prominent as on Puerto Rico’s south coast, a rural, economically struggling region far from the capital of San Juan and major tourist destinations. Here, coal ash — or “cenizas” in Spanish — has become a symbol of the environmental injustice that has long plagued the U.S. colony.

The ash originated from a coal-fired power plant owned by global energy company AES in the nearby town of Guayama. After the Dominican Republic began refusing imports of the waste, the company promoted the material to Puerto Rican municipalities and contractors as a construction fill product. In all, more than 1.5 million tons of coal ash were deposited in Salinas and Guayama, according to a 2012 letter by the company’s vice president that was obtained by the Puerto Rico-based Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, or Center for Investigative Journalism.

In July 2022, a decade after community pressure forced the company to stop marketing ash for such use, EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited Guayama and Salinas to meet with residents about coal ash and other environmental issues as part of his “Journey to Justice” tour. The tour also included the agency’s first Environmental Justice Advisory Council meeting in Puerto Rico. Piñeiro and others are glad for the attention, but given the U.S. government’s long history of broken promises and neglect in Puerto Rico, they are impatient for meaningful action.

From left, José Cora Collazo, Sol Piñeiro, and Carlos Lago on the coal ash road running along Piñeiro’s home.
From left, José Cora Collazo, Sol Piñeiro, and Carlos Lago on the coal ash road running along Piñeiro’s home. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Energy injustice

Piñeiro learned the backstory of the powdery gray road material when she connected with José Cora Collazo, who lives in a mint-green home perched on a hillside nearby, with sweeping views of the south coast. Piñeiro has since joined Cora in leading the organization Acción Social y Protección Ambiental, raising awareness about coal ash and demanding change from local and U.S. officials.

While the majority of Puerto Rico’s population lives on the north coast, including the San Juan area, the bulk of the island’s power is generated on the south coast, including at the AES coal plant as well as a nearby power plant that burns oil. That means the residents of Guayama, Salinas and other nearby communities could be subject to a myriad of public health risks, experts and activists say, while the mangrove ecosystem of Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and area fisheries could also be threatened.

During frequent heavy rains, Piñeiro and Cora see the gray coal ash streaming down crumbling roads and into the tangled brush and creeks that traverse the hillsides. As Piñeiro’s picturesque homestead is on a slope below the road Calle Luis Llorens Torres, the coal ash runs down onto her property.

Local residents draw drinking water from their own private wells or a network of municipal wells, and they worry that coal ash is polluting the groundwater. In 2021, chemist Osvaldo Rosario spearheaded testing of tap water in area homes and found disturbing signs of contamination with toxic metals known to be in coal ash. In August, Rosario and colleagues retested the same homes and are awaiting results.

Rosario’s testing and ongoing activism by locals spurred the U.S. EPA to do its own groundwater testing this spring. EPA spokesperson Robert Daguillard previously told the Energy News Network the agency anticipated presenting the results in late September; EPA did not respond to a recent query about the status of the results.

“EPA’s focus on CCR [coal combustion residuals] in Puerto Rico follows the commitment made by Administrator Regan during his Journey to Justice visit with communities concerned with the management of CCR in Puerto Rico,” Daguillard said in response to the Energy News Network’s questions.

AES’ coal plant in Guayama.
AES’ coal plant in Guayama. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Broken promises, problematic offers

When AES built the coal plant, it promised the resulting ash would be shipped off the island. An investigation by Centro de Periodismo Investigativo revealed that in its first two years of operation, more than 100 million tons of coal ash from the plant were sent to the Dominican Republic, dumped in and around the town of Arroyo Barril and several ports. Soon residents noticed a spike in birth defects, miscarriages and other ailments, which experts attributed to the coal ash pollution.

The country barred coal ash imports. In U.S. court, AES agreed to pay $6 million to remove the coal ash. Meanwhile, AES began marketing the byproduct in Puerto Rico as a construction fill under the brand name Agremax. The ash was used in the wealthy San Juan-area town of Dorado and the university town of Mayaguez on the west coast, but use was heaviest on the south coast.

“They began dumping the ash in many areas of Puerto Rico as the base for many roads, many trails, unpaved trails of pure ash,” Rosario said. “They would fill in flood-prone areas so there could be construction. There was illegal dumping in many open areas. They literally gave the ash away; they paid for the transportation. A contractor would say, ‘I need 20 tons of coal ash to fill in this area,’ and they would bring the coal ash.”

A 2023 report by the environmental organization Earthjustice noted that the toxic ash still lies unused and uncovered at sites where it poses health risks to people in nearby homes, parks, a school and a hospital. “At numerous sites, the coal ash was left uncovered or covered only with a thin layer of dirt, which quickly eroded,” the report said. “Fugitive dust from these uncovered piles and roads is common.”

Rosario said that the use of coal ash was done “under the permissive oversight of government agencies.”

“You put a couple inches of topsoil over it, then when that topsoil gets eroded away or you dig to plant a tree, you reach this gray material which is the ash,” he said. “The water level is not far below that. This was done behind the backs of the people. They got mortgages for houses built on toxic material.”

Sol Piñeiro pictured in her yard holding a piece of produce she grew. The sprawling yard is filled with orchids, cacti and colorful artifacts, including a bright red vintage pickup truck.
Sol Piñeiro in her yard, with produce she grew. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Unencapsulated ash

In 2012, Vanderbilt University tested Agremax at the behest of the U.S. EPA. It found that the material — a mix of fly ash and bottom ash — leached high concentrations of arsenic, boron, chloride, chromium, fluoride, lithium and molybdenum.

Coal ash is commonly used as a component in concrete, and it is widely considered safe when it is encapsulated in such material.

But unencapsulated use of coal ash, while legal, is opposed by environmental groups  who fear that the dangerous heavy metals known to leach into groundwater can spread and potentially expose people to carcinogens and neurotoxins through drinking water, soil and air.

Advocates have long argued for stricter regulation of unencapsulated use of coal ash. As the Energy News Network explored in a 2022 investigation, throughout the U.S. developers can use up to 12,400 tons of unencapsulated coal ash without notifying the public.

There are about a billion tons of coal ash stored in impoundments and landfills around the U.S., and testing required under 2015 federal rules shows that almost all of it is contaminating groundwater, as Earthjustice, Environmental Integrity Project and other organizations have shown based on the companies’ own groundwater monitoring data. This summer, the EPA expanded what types of coal ash storage are subject to the rules, including ash at repositories that were closed before 2015.

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit last year demanding that the expanded rules also address ash used as structural fill in places like Salinas and Guayama.

But the agency did not mention such ash in its revision to the rules, with the draft released in May. In June, Cora traveled to Chicago to testify before the EPA. Unless they are changed, the rules leave his neighbors and others across Puerto Rico with few legal avenues to fight for accountability and remediation.

“The coal ash industry has their laboratories; they know what they are doing,” Rosario said. “I go back to the word ‘avarice’ — they know all of this, just like the tobacco industry.”

AES, which is headquartered in Arlington County, Virginia, did not respond to questions from the Energy News Network. A regional AES representative instead provided a statement saying: “For more than 20 years, AES Puerto Rico has been bringing safe, affordable, and reliable energy to the island and supplying up to 25% of the island’s energy needs. We remain committed to accelerating the responsible transition to renewable energy for the island and the people of Puerto Rico.”

A history of struggle

Cora was aware of environmental issues from childhood. His father, José Juan Cora Rosa, was a prominent activist who fought against the U.S. Navy’s bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, among other iconic struggles.

The elder Cora explained that in the late 1990s, local resistance halted plans to build a coal plant in Mayaguez, the town on Puerto Rico’s west coast home to a prominent technical university. The coal plant was instead opened in 2002 in Guayama, despite opposition from the elder Cora and other residents. He said the company likely knew they’d face less pushback since Guayama’s population is smaller and economically struggling.

For years now, residents of Guayama and Salinas have complained of health effects — from tumors to skin disease — that they think are caused by the coal plant. A 2016 study by the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Public Health showed a disproportionately high incidence of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, asthma, hives and spontaneous abortions in Guayama. Other studies have found high cancer rates in the area, according to reporting by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo.

Salinas resident Victor Alvarado Guzmán has seen such health issues firsthand. His wife is a cancer survivor, and he notes that on two blocks in the Miramar community of Guayama, 18 people have had cancer, some fatal cases.

“That’s not normal,” he said.

Salinas resident and environmental activist Victor Alvarado Guzmán stands across the street from a shopping center that was built on a foundation of coal ash.
Salinas resident and environmental activist Victor Alvarado Guzmán wants to see coal ash removed from his community, where it was used to build roads and the foundation for shopping centers like this one. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Alvarado is trained as a psychologist but has been an environmental activist for a quarter-century, fighting unsuccessfully against the coal plant and successfully to block a proposed landfill and chicken processing plant from the area. He’s co-founder of the grassroots environmental group Diálogo Ambiental, and he’s run for public office.

Sitting in a restaurant in Salinas built on a foundation of coal ash, Alvarado said he wants to see historic ash removed from the community, and he wants the government to pay for soil and water testing plus blood testing for residents to see how heavy metals from coal ash may be affecting them.

Under a gazebo in Guayama on a stifling hot August afternoon, local environmental activists gathered to discuss the risk from coal ash, and the plant’s air emissions.

“Every time we have a meeting, we hear about someone else who is sick,” noted Miriam Gallardo, a teacher who used to work at a school near the plant, seeing coal ash-laden trucks go by.

Aldwin Colón, founder of community group Comunidad Guayama Unidos Por Tu Salud — Guayama Community United for Your Health — said that on his block, people in four out of the nine homes have cancer. He said he blames the coal plant and the public officials who have not done more to protect residents. He noted that Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi was previously a lobbyist representing AES.

He lamented that the company chose to build the plant in a lower-income community with little tourism.

“In poor communities, we don’t have the resources to fight back,” Colón said, in Spanish. “These are criminal companies that use corrupt politics for their own means. This is racism and classism — the same old story, the slaves sacrificed for the patron.”

Colón, Piñeiro and Cora drove around the area with other activists from Guayama to show the Energy News Network multiple sites where coal ash is visible. They pulled over along a major road, Dulces Sueños — Sweet Dreams — built in recent years. One man dug a shovel into the embankment next to the road. After turning over a few inches of soil and foliage, his shovel filled with gray powder.

An activist from Guayama digs into the embankment next to a major road as an example of a site where coal ash is visible just inches under the soil.
An activist from Guayama digs into the embankment next to a major road as an example of a site where coal ash is visible just inches under the soil. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Continuing through Salinas and Guayama, Piñeiro pointed out the strip malls and fast food stores that were built on top of coal ash, among 36 specific locations documented by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo.

Cora and Piñeiro noted the coal ash-laden “caminos blancos” — white roads, as they are commonly known — traversing the countryside, known as hot destinations for mountain bikers.

At a small store in Guayama, older men passed the sweltering afternoon sitting on plastic chairs sipping Medalla beers. The owner of the store, Jacob Soto Lopez, recounted how he used to jog on dirt roads in the nearby town of Arroyo — until he learned the dust he was kicking up was toxic coal ash. Now he frets about how it may be contaminating the drinking water.

“We sell bottled water here, but a lot of people can’t afford it,” he said. “They should stop producing the ashes and take away what they’ve thrown on our island.”

A recent environmental protest in Salinas. Dozens of activists hold signs, written in Spanish, protesting coal ash contamination in Puerto Rico.
A recent environmental protest in Salinas. Credit: José Cora Collazo / Courtesy

A revolt

On the mainland, many Americans are unaware of the threat posed by coal ash, or even its existence, since it is often stored on coal plant sites, in roads and berms, and in quarries, ravines, or old mines. The federal rules regulating coal ash that took effect in 2015 were barely enforced until 2022, when the EPA began issuing decisions related to the rules.

But in communities on Puerto Rico’s south coast, the term “cenizas” — ashes in Spanish — is often recognized as a signifier of injustice and popular struggle.

When AES offloaded Agremax for use in construction and fill starting in 2004, it’s possible local officials and others did not understand the risks. But concerns soon grew and multiple municipalities passed ordinances banning the storage of coal ash.

In 2016, residents of Peñuelas — 40 miles west of the plant — revolted over AES’ plan to truck ash to a landfill in their community, despite a municipal ordinance banning coal ash. Hundreds of people occupied the street, blocking trucks from entering the landfill, and dozens of arrests were made over several days in November 2016. AES stopped sending ash to Peñuelas.

Manuel “Nolo” Díaz, a leader of that movement, noted that locals were ready to snap into action since they had previously worked together to oppose a plan to build a gas pipeline through the area.

“We took over the street to enforce the law,” Díaz said, in Spanish. “It’s so beautiful when people come together to defend their rights. But the fight is not over until they remove the ashes from the 14 towns, and decontaminate the water they’ve contaminated.”

In 2017, the island’s government passed a law banning the storage of coal ash on the island. Since then, AES has shipped coal ash from the island to U.S. ports including Jacksonville, Florida, for storage in landfills in Georgia and elsewhere, the Energy News Network has reported.

While coal ash is no longer permanently stored in Puerto Rico, a mound of coal ash multiple stories high is visible at AES’ site, where it is allowed to be stored temporarily before transport. And coal ash still makes up the street above Piñeiro’s home and many others, creating milky gray rivulets running down the hills and likely percolating into drinking water sources.

Vanessa Uriarte, executive director of the group Amigos del Mar, speaks surrounded by other activists at a press conference outside of Puerto Rico’s natural resources department in San Juan.
Vanessa Uriarte, executive director of the group Amigos del Mar, speaks at a press conference outside of Puerto Rico’s natural resources department in San Juan. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

A conundrum

The law against storing coal ash on the island could complicate efforts to remove it from roads and fill sites, since it would need to be transported and stored somewhere.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency allocated about $8 million for Salinas to repair roads in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Maria. Cora, Piñeiro and others have demanded that the money be used to remove coal ash from roads and rebuild them.

Last year, Salinas Mayor Karilyn Bonilla Colón requested an exception to the law banning the disposal of coal ash on the island, so that coal ash could be extracted from the roads in Salinas and deposited in landfills in Ponce, Humacao or Peñuelas. She told local media that exporting the ash off the island would be too expensive.

Organizations in Peñuelas and beyond opposed the move, calling it disrespectful to their communities. In January, the natural resources department denied the mayor’s request.

Piñeiro and Cora are frustrated Bonilla has not found another way to remove and dispose of the ash. On Sept. 5, activists painted on the street in Salinas with large letters calling the mayor “asesina ambiental” — an environmental assassin.

A spokesperson for Bonilla said she is no longer doing interviews about coal ash, and referred the Energy News Network to local news coverage of the controversy.

Cora and other activists are now appealing to Manuel A. Laboy Rivera, the executive director of the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency which oversees FEMA fund distribution in Puerto Rico, since he recently warned that 80 municipalities, government agencies and organizations in Puerto Rico will have to return the emergency funds if they can’t prove they’ve been used.

Cora and Piñeiro note that many of their neighbors are elderly, and don’t feel urgency around coal ash after having survived two hurricanes and a major earthquake in the past six years, not to mention the island’s ongoing economic crisis.

“But what about future generations?” Piñeiro asked.

“If the aquifer is contaminated and we don’t have potable water in Salinas, how can people live here?” added Cora, in Spanish. “What can we do?”

Cora, Piñeiro and their allies want the coal plant to close and be replaced by clean energy, and indeed Puerto Rico has passed a law calling for a transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050. But they don’t want the clean energy transition to replicate the injustices of the fossil fuel economy, and they feel plans for massive solar farms on the south coast — developed in part by AES — could do just that.

While solar farms are emissions-free, they continue the problem of reliance on a fragile centralized grid and put the island’s energy burden on the south coast.

Opponents say the proposed massive arrays of solar panels cause flooding and erosion — by compacting land and causing run-off — while also displacing agricultural land. Attorney Ruth Santiago, who has lived most of her life in Salinas, is representing environmental groups that recently filed a lawsuit against the Puerto Rico government over 18 planned solar farms, including by AES.

On Aug. 7, Alvarado led activists from island-wide environmental groups in delivering a letter to Puerto Rico’s natural resources department in San Juan, making demands around coal ash, solar farms and other issues.

“Under the theme of an energy transition that is just and clean, how are they going to deal with the deposit of toxic ashes across the country?” said Vanessa Uriarte, executive director of the group Amigxs del Mar, in Spanish, outside the department’s office. “The department needs to tell us what their plan of action is to deal with this problem. And now the same company that has contaminated our community with coal ash is taking our agricultural lands for solar panels.”

Energy justice leaders instead want decentralized small solar and microgrids that are resilient during disasters and cause minimal environmental impacts so that future generations are not left with more injustices like coal ash.

“It’s this strange situation where it’s not a problem about the lack of funding,” Santiago said, referring to federal funds allocated to Puerto Rico. “There’s more than enough funding, but it’s being used to rebuild this business-as-usual kind of electric system. This disaster recovery funding should be an opportunity to transform the electric system in a way that would really serve the public interest.”

In Puerto Rico, residents wait for accountability, cleanup of toxic coal ash ‘caminos blancos’ is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

The long tail of toxic emissions on the Navajo Nation

Driving to another site in Counselor Chapter, a small community in the eastern reaches of the Navajo Nation where the political chapters are outside the reservation boundaries, she described the different types of equipment — flare stacks, storage tanks, gas compressors — from which she commonly sees emissions. Pinto said that most air emissions seem to come from operators intentionally flaring or venting excess gases that build up in the equipment, rather than unintentional emissions, such as from aging underground pipes. She and her colleagues refrain from calling any emissions “leaks,” though: While these systems were designed to emit gas, usually as a safety mechanism, the vapor trails she films are often caused by malfunctioning equipment.

“If people were to be exposed to this air, they were also at risk of other non-cancer health outcomes, including respiratory, neurological and developmental effects.”

“These little flares should be lit and combusting all the hydrocarbons, but when you put the camera on (a lit flare), a portion of those hydrocarbons are still venting out into the atmosphere and along this horizon,” she said. “And that’s worrisome, because the air has no boundaries.”

The snow had ceased when Pinto trained the boxy, camcorder-
like device on another well site. To the naked eye, the row of 20-foot-tall storage tanks did not appear to be emitting anything unnatural. Using the camera, though, she toggled between monochrome and technicolor image modes, revealing a plume of hydrocarbons rising from an unlit flare stack near the tanks.

Across the region, wells suck crude oil and natural gas from shale formations thousands of feet below the surface. Some of the gas escapes, despite regulations to limit “venting and flaring” by operators. (Flaring is supposed to burn off the escaping methane, converting it to carbon dioxide, a less potent greenhouse gas.) At every juncture — from the wells extracting the hydrocarbons to the storage tanks, compressors and pipelines that convey the material — the system is rife with holes.

A sign along Highway 550, east of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, near Lybrook Elementary School, alerts people to the presence of methane from the extensive network of fracking installations in the area.

Hydrogen sulfide, a byproduct of oil and gas wells that smells like rotten eggs, is a frequent odor in oilfields. Even at very low concentrations, the toxic gas can sting the nostrils and cause nausea, dizziness, bloody nose and other acute symptoms. Inhaling extremely high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide in an enclosed space can kill a human almost immediately. The hydrocarbon soup that comes up from the shale also contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as benzene, which has been shown to increase the risk of blood cancers and pregnancy complications.

A Harvard-led study of millions of people ages 65 and older showed that those living near fracking operations had a higher early mortality risk.

“If people were to be exposed to this air, they were also at risk of other non-cancer health outcomes, including respiratory, neurological and developmental effects,” said Lisa McKenzie, an associate professor with the Colorado School of Public Health who has studied the health impacts of oil and gas production.

The off-gassing benzene is one of the many air toxics that can escape from oil and gas infrastructure. Along with other VOCs like xylene and formaldehyde, the emissions contribute to air pollution in the form of ozone, nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter. A 2022 study in Pennsylvania showed that children born within two kilometers (about 1.25 miles) of a fracking site were two to three times more likely to develop leukemia. In Colorado, McKenzie led studies showing that children with the blood cancer, as well as congenital heart defects, are more likely to live near oil and gas sites. Older people are also at risk: A Harvard-led study of millions of people ages 65 and older showed that those living near fracking operations — particularly downwind — had a higher early mortality risk compared to elderly people living in areas without wells.

In the mesa-lined valleys that surround Counselor, some wells pump petroleum within a few hundred feet of homes and traditional hogans; one well site lies less than 2,000 feet from a local school. The rural community’s exposure to VOCs and other air toxics has led to mounting concern among some residents about the potential health problems caused by the emissions.

Kendra Pinto (Diné) a local resident who lives near fracking installations in the Lybrook area east of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, stands in front of a decommissioned well that has not had tanks and pipes removed and still poses a hazard to the community (right).

PINTO, who captures footage at oil and gas sites in the area regularly, said she often has a headache “by mid-afternoon” in the field, and has also experienced eye and respiratory irritation that she attributes to exposure.

Given the enormous scale of the extraction activities and resulting air pollution in the Permian Basin — which straddles the New Mexico–Texas border — Pinto said the air-quality problems in her community are often overshadowed. “The problem for folks in this area is that the Permian will get a lot more attention than the San Juan Basin,” she said, noting that cleaning up the industry in the Four Corners region would likely prove more beneficial to human health. An Earthworks analysis shows that in the San Juan Basin, nearly 80% of the population lives within a half-mile of active oil and gas operations.

Another area drawing more media coverage and political attention lies closer to Counselor Chapter: In recent years, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s plan to halt federal oil and gas leasing near Chaco Culture National Historical Park has led to division among the area’s predominantly Navajo communities. The 10-mile buffer zone, which went into effect in June, encompasses all public lands surrounding the thousand-year-old Pueblo complex. The action drew the ire of pro-fracking residents, and was eventually opposed by the Navajo Nation Council and President Buu Nygren.

Many of those who opposed the leasing stoppage are from families who benefit from wells drilled on “Indian allotments,” tracts that the federal government allocated to Navajo households, who could then lease their mineral rights to oil and gas companies and receive royalty payments that are split between the original allottees’ heirs. Under the signed order, Navajo allottees are not prohibited from leasing their mineral rights, but many argue that the buffer zone will make their land less desirable for development. Delora Hesuse, an outspoken allottee from Nageezi Chapter, said that Navajo communities should be free to benefit from the area’s mineral resources, despite the potential exposure to pollutants.

“We do our homework,” Hesuse said. “Those issues have already been spoken about within the families.”

Pinto said she doesn’t relish filming in communities that tend to support oil-and-gas extraction. People have lashed out publicly against her and others who voice concern about the industry’s impact on the environment and community members. Disputes over mineral interests have, in some cases, led to physical violence.

“We absolutely know that malfunctions are not reported, that excess emissions are not reported and that there is noncompliance with regulations on a systematic, widespread basis.”

After documenting the malfunctioning flare, she logged details about the well, which is operated by Enduring Resources. Some of the footage she’s collected for Earthworks has been packaged as part of complaints the organization has filed with the New Mexico Environment Department.

A MAP OF the area reveals a complicated patchwork of land ownership, including federal, state, private and trust lands. Of the more than 21,000 active wells in the San Juan Basin, the majority were leased and permitted on public lands by the Bureau of Land Management. Oil and gas operators in the state are regulated by the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division (NMOCD), which, under the state’s 2021 Methane Waste Rule, is tasked with limiting the amount of natural gas that is wasted by the industry. In theory, that rule prohibits most routine venting and flaring. However, the law includes nearly a dozen exceptions that allow venting and flaring during “an emergency or malfunction,” as well as during scheduled maintenance or the “normal operation of a storage tank.”

Companies self-report their estimated emissions to the division, and are compelled to report any major flaring incidents, as in August of 2022, when more than 107 million cubic feet of gas were flared from a cluster of wells operated by DJR Energy near the community of Nageezi. And while substantial emissions are reported by companies, industry critics say those volumes are likely dwarfed by unreported and so-called fugitive emissions.

An infared video still by Earthworks shows gas emitting from a site in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico.
Courtesy of Earthwork

NMOCD director Dylan Fuge said equipment such as storage tanks may release gas “as a safety measure so the tanks don’t explode,” or for various other reasons during extraction, storage and transportation. Last year, operators in the northern part of the state reported venting of more than 197 million cubic feet. Fuge emphasized that operators are allowed to vent and flare under exceptions in state regulations, though he acknowledged the likelihood that “there are some” unreported emissions on the division’s watch.

Based on aerial footage, Liz Kuehn, Air Quality Bureau chief with the state Environment Department, is confident that unreported emissions are occurring in the basin. “We absolutely know that malfunctions are not reported, that excess emissions are not reported and that there is noncompliance with regulations on a systematic, widespread basis,” Kuehn told High Country News.

A new rule to limit the emission of “ozone precursors” from specific equipment should help curb VOC releases in the coming years, Kuehn added. Under the Oil Conservation Division’s new Methane Waste Rule, operators will be required to capture 98% of the methane they release by 2026. But environmental organizations say the agencies are letting the industry run roughshod over regulations intended to curb emissions. Earthworks has submitted more than 100 complaint videos to state Environment Department in the past five years, many of which were rejected based on technicalities, Pinto said. 

To address some of the organization’s complaints, the agency adopted a system of notifying operators and the public about alleged violations, Kuehn said. The department has undertaken at least four major enforcement actions against operators in the basin over the past five years, while NMOCD has assessed no penalties against operators for venting and flaring in the basin since 2020. The NMOCD currently employs five inspectors in the basin, and the Environment Department has five inspectors statewide.

“It is frustrating that as much as (the agencies) bemoan a lack of resources, a lack of staffing, and an inability to enforce all the time everywhere, that they’re not taking small actions that could make things better in the meantime,” said Jeremy Nichols, who until August was the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “The industry needs to be given the message that this behavior, these releases, they won’t be tolerated anymore.”

“You can already smell it when you approach that stop; it gets stronger and stronger until we get right by the tank. It could just give you a headache right there.”

The Navajo Nation EPA currently monitors air quality at two sites in New Mexico and Arizona, neither in the Counselor area, environment program supervisor Glenna Lee said, adding that the agency’s air-monitoring capacity is constrained by the limited grant funding it receives from the U.S. EPA. After requests for an interview, an agency spokesperson said in a statement, “EPA will continue to investigate matters that concern air quality in at-risk communities and we will work with our state partners to ensure public health concerns are addressed adequately.”

In recent years, the BLM has paused leasing throughout its Farmington Field Office area. A draft management plan for the region proposed in 2020 could allow for new drilling in the area. As of this year, that plan is still pending further review. Field manager Maureen Joe declined to address whether additional acreage may be opened in the future.

ON AUTUMN MORNINGS, school buses bounce along the rutted roads linking the rural communities, while children gather at makeshift bus stops in the morning chill. In 2022, a well near one of the stops gave off noxious odors that students had to endure for months, said Harry Domingo, who has driven routes in the area’s predominantly Diné communities for many years. 

“You can already smell it when you approach that stop; it gets stronger and stronger until we get right by the tank,” he said. “It could just give you a headache right there.” On other stretches of road, the odors coming from oil-and-gas infrastructure cause students riding the bus to hold their nose and say “Eww,” he recalled.

Domingo is also the vice president of Counselor Chapter. In the past, he has shuttled K-8 students to Lybrook School, a sandstone-colored building overlooking Highway 550. The school used to be located several miles up the road, but was relocated after residents voiced health and safety concerns over a gas-processing plant across the street. In 2005, the school was reconstructed at its present location. A decade later, a drilling rig appeared across the street.

Gas infrastructure near Counselor Chapter’s Lybrook Elementary School.

Five wells, now operated by Enduring Resources, were completed in 2015, at the tail end of a fracking boom in which hundreds of oil and gas wells were drilled in the region. The company reported venting at least 48,000 cubic feet of uncombusted gases across from the school in August 2022.

Near a shallow pass in the sandstone ridgeline, a few miles from Lybrook School, Marlene Thomas was cooking at home in the late afternoon. Outside her house, several dogs left tracks in the shallow snow that borders the driveway, which passes within 100 yards of an active well. For three decades, she worked as a community health representative for the Navajo Nation, a role that involved visiting homes throughout the area and consulting residents about their health. Now retired, Thomas said she suspects that the rash of oil and gas activity in the area has caused health problems in the community.

She was on a committee that conducted a community-driven Health Impact Assessment. Starting in 2016, the committee began speaking with residents who described experiencing sore throats, sinus problems, headaches and other symptoms often attributed to increased air pollution. In 2018, the committee conducted air monitoring that showed elevated levels of particulate matter and formaldehyde, and the presence of other VOCs.

Since Thomas retired, she’s continued to hear from community members about the perceived effects of the ongoing air quality issues. She spoke with one woman who said she’d noticed an increase in stillbirths in recent years. Talking about an elder who has since died from a “respiratory illness,” Thomas said the woman noted that her coughing and throat irritation worsened when she would herd her sheep near a particular well site. “She noticed a difference between when she was near” the facility and when she took her sheep in a different direction, which the woman said made her “feel a lot better,” Thomas recounted.

Fracked oil is pumped to the Huerfano Station, just north of Huerfano Mountain in northern New Mexico. These lands are home to Navajo, Pueblo, Jicarilla Apache and other Indigenous peoples.

Sitting in his office a few miles away, former Chapter President Samuel Sage said he often smells the gas that collects in certain valleys. Sage, who has provided written testimony to Congress on the issue, said officials with the BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs never discussed the dangers posed by fracking during oil-leasing negotiations with allotment owners. “The first thing that was mentioned was, ‘If you sign this, you will get this much money,’ and of course, there was no hesitation,” he said.

While oil tankers tear up the dirt roads that branch off the highway, Sage said the industry’s presence has frayed the fabric of the community, pitting locals who support oil and gas development against those who are opposed to the industry encroaching on the landscape. Undeterred by the controversy, Pinto plans to continue putting pressure on regulators and the industry by documenting emissions and raising awareness of their potential health impacts. 

“It’s not good for us, it’s not good for wildlife, it’s not good for plants,” Pinto said. “Are people getting paid enough to bear all these negative impacts — is it worth it?”

Mark Armao (Diné) hails from the high desert in northern Arizona. Now based in California, his recent reporting has focused on environmental issues facing Indigenous communities.