FARMINGTON – A coalition of environmental groups has filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management accusing the federal agency of not allowing a comment period on the environmental assessment for oil and gas leases in New Mexico.
The lawsuit seeks to overturn the sale of oil and gas drilling leases on about 41,000 acres of public land from December 2018. The groups argue the BLM held a 10-day protest period on the leases and did not allow a comment period on the environmental impact of the leases to the Diné communities of Torreon and Ojo Encino on the Navajo Nation.
The leased parcels are located near the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Wendy Atcitty with Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, or Diné CARE – one of the organizations that brought the lawsuit against the BLM – says the lease sale will have a direct impact on the communities.
“Within the nearly 41,000 acres of lease sale parcels are four to five municipal wells that provide water to Ojo Encino, Torreon, Pueblo Pintado and White Horse Lake,” Atcitty said. “So far, the bureau has failed to address health concerns, air and water quality concerns or provide opportunities for meaningful public participation in this whole process. The health of our communities needs to come first.”
In the BLM’s environment assessment, it says the oil and gas development will have an impact primarily on the Navajo Nation chapters and Hispanic communities near Cuba, New Mexico.
The assessment reads: “Executive Order 12898 required federal agencies to promote environmental justice by determining, and addressing as needed, whether the agency’s programs, policies and activities have disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority populations and low-income populations.”
Yet, according to the lawsuit filed by the environmental groups, the BLM’s public participation process falls short of the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement” for environmental justice to be met.
The leased parcels are in Sandoval County, near the border of Rio Arriba and San Juan counties, and are about 30 miles east of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
In addition to Diné CARE, Western Environmental Law Center, WildEarth Guardians, San Juan Citizens Alliance and Sierra Club-Rio Grande Chapter joined the lawsuit against the BLM.
The environmental coalition also alleged in the lawsuit that the federal agency did not adequately analyze the health effects of oil and gas drilling on local communities in its environmental assessment.
“The bureau ignored the disproportionate health and safety risks of fracking and drilling – especially cumulative impacts – to people and communities in the lease sale area,” the coalition said in a news release.
The lawsuit says the bureau is responsible for analyzing the emissions from oil and gas development and its impact to the climate – something the organizations say the BLM did not do.
The groups also cited the disproportionate public health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Navajo Nation communities.
“In the midst of a pandemic, we are forced back to court to defend Diné communities that continue to suffer from oil and gas impacts and related COVID-19 morbidity,” said WildEarth Guardians senior climate campaigner Rebecca Sobel.