Shirley “Sug” McNall has become the black sheep among not only her family, but also the community in which she lives, and it’s not hard to see why. Her “Toxic Tour of Hell” exposes the ugly side of an industry her neighbors in San Juan County, N.M., desperately rely on to put food on the table.
“My family gives me hell,” McNall said while navigating the high desert of Aztec, New Mexico, in a blue pickup truck covered with “Bernie Sanders for President” and “Bread Not Bombs” bumper stickers.
“Most of them depend on the oil and gas industry. But I’m doing it for them too. They breathe the same air I do. They drink the same water. Their kids and grandkids are being raised in this toxic environment.
“I’m not trying to shut oil and gas down. I just want them to do the right thing.”
McNall, 71, is more affectionately known as “Sug” – short for sugar. For almost a decade, McNall has led her tour for anyone interested, and in the process, has attracted researchers, scientists, elected officials and a slew of journalists from all over the world.
“There’s always that one key person who makes it their job to expose the industry and tell as many people as they can, and that’s her,” said Josh Fox, whose critically acclaimed 2010 documentary “Gasland” features McNall.
“There’s always that one community activist slash storyteller slash witness with their whole body. You can’t overstate the importance of that.”
Inattention endsMcNall’s inattention to the impacts of oil and gas ended in 2005 when she was hit with hyrdogen sulfide poisoning from a gas well about a three-quarters of a mile uphill from her home east of Aztec while going to get the mail.
“It was absolutely frightful because I really thought I was going to die, and I didn’t know why or what was going on,” she said.
After the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division and BP American Production Company conducted an investigation, a well was found leaking and immediately shut down. But McNall’s involvement was only just beginning.
She attended a summit on energy industry accountability in Farmington, where she started showing people the worst polluted sites around her hometown.
“When I really opened my eyes and started paying attention, I was appalled at what I was seeing,” she said. “I just started finding more and more sites in neighborhoods, and it just built. I said, “Well this grandma needs to get busy and do what she can to educate.”
McNall’s tour, which lasts about four hours, takes visitors through an intense industrial landscape: wells behind an elementary school and in the middle of neighborhoods, a landfill of contaminated soil kicking up dust toward a mobile home park, a massive refinery towering over a historic Catholic cemetery.
In a nearby neighborhood, McNall spots a well leaking a noxious liquid, and immediately reaches for her phone to file a complaint with New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division.
“They know me by now,” McNall said with a sense of satisfaction that is quickly numbed by a disappointment the industry seemingly doesn’t care for nearby residents. “I’ve heard, ‘Oh well, they are just trailer trash.’ But they are human beings and this is probably as good as it gets, and they deserve quality of life too.”
McNall was born and raised in Aztec, on a 720-acre ranch her family homesteaded since the early 1940s. Her own property east of town is surrounded by 20 wells in less than a mile radius.
“We used to run cattle, and it was gorgeous,” she recalled sadly, pointing to a patch of untouched juniper and piñon trees adjacent to an oil refinery. “It used to be all like that. Every bit of it – before the hell hit.”
Feeding a nationDuring President Nixon’s “Project Independence” in the 1970s, a report by the National Academy of Sciences deemed the entire Four Corners a “national sacrifice area” for energy production.
“At the time they were looking at energy corridors,” said the San Juan Citizen Alliance’s Mike Eisenfeld. “The rhetoric was: because this area receives so little precipitation and the energy values were so high, we might as well designate this zone and never have to reclaim it since there’s nothing there.”
The San Juan basin, with its rich deposits of coal, uranium and natural gas, became one of the largest producers of fossil fuels in the country.
But the stark difference in the landscape of Southwest Colorado and Northwest New Mexico’s overlap in the basin isn’t accidental, said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt. Concerned citizens, environmental groups and elected officials in Colorado were able to mobilize almost immediately, and modernize regulations on development.
“Folks weren’t able to get that kind of organizing going until many years after their boom,” Lachelt said of San Juan County, New Mexico. “Sug really helped get other people involved in that effort.”
For McNall, northwest New Mexico isn’t a dumpsite for national interests – it’s home.
When she’s not touring the less than scenic industrial wasteland, the retired rancher finds respite in bird watching, playing African drums in an ensemble and spending time with her only daughter.
She’s never thought about leaving. “Where would I go?” she asked.
Having witnessed more than six decades of booms and bust, her heart is with the workers most impacted, the people who don’t have the option to find work in other parts of the country. A recent report estimated 6,000 jobs in the energy industry were lost since 2009 in San Juan County.
“People used to go somewhere else, but this thing is worldwide,” she said. “There’s a lot of despair this time.”
Her anger lies with the energy companies who cut corners and don’t make good on promises to clean up their mess, the local government that lived gluttonously in boom years and failed to diversify the economy, and the helplessness of losing the landscape.
“The question I get asked the most on this tour is: ‘Is there any hope?’” she said. “I know there’s hope. I don’t know what it is. But you can’t ever give up hope.”