The sandstone mesas around Chaco Culture National Historical Park deserve contemplative quiet, in respect to the Pueblo people who built this masonry marvel of ceremonial buildings and monumental plazas around AD 850. But up here, tranquility is in short supply. Instead, much of this high-desert corner of northwest New Mexico, home to several American Indian tribes, has become a noisy industrial wasteland, its hush disturbed by some 23,000 active oil and gas wells, its flats rutted by service roads, its air tainted with methane, hydrogen sulfide, and other noxious by-products of fracking.
The toxic dangers became clear on the night of July 11, 2016, when residents of the tiny Navajo village of Nageezi were shaken awake by exploding wells and fireballs hurtling over their homes. It was just the type of conflagration that longtime Navajo activist Daniel Tso had been predicting for five years, ever since the fracking boom took hold of the region.
“There is a total disregard for the people living here,” says Tso, who has been mapping fracking operations across the San Juan Basin, a 7,500-square-mile area covering parts of New Mexico and Colorado near the Four Corners. “They’re having to breathe in hydrogen sulfide and methane and other hazardous gasses on a daily basis.” His opposition is gaining traction among residents; in November, he beat a pro-industry incumbent to win a seat on the Navajo Nation Council.
According to an NRDC report, people living near fracking sites are exposed to air pollution that can cause a number of serious health impacts, from birth defects and blood disorders to cancer. Fracking’s toxic by-products also spread by water. A 2017 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study noted that hydraulic fracturing activities have resulted in “impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells.” Nonetheless, Tso says federal officials ignore those threats when handing out drilling permits.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park faces its own perils. Although drilling is prohibited within this UNESCO World Heritage Site, the intense surrounding activity affects the way of life for American Indians, who consider the ruins sacred. Cultural roots here run profoundly deep; a structure called Pueblo Bonito, considered the heart of the Chacoan universe, was constructed by ancestors of New Mexico’s Pueblo peoples between AD 850 and 1150. Nearby canyon walls are marked by their abundant petroglyphs and paintings; other rock art depicts traditional Navajo ceremonies.