• May 18th, 2024
  • Saturday, 09:03:30 AM

Lawsuit Challenges Fracking Leases Threatening Northern Arizona Groundwater

Illustration: Lydia Fu for ProPublica Illinois In a disputed custody case, the children of a Spanish-speaking father will remain with their Slovak-speaking foster parents.


 Conservation groups sued the Trump administration on July 15, for leasing 4,200 acres of public lands for oil and gas extraction in Arizona’s Little Colorado River basin without any new environmental review.

The leases, which convey development rights to industry, allow oil, gas and helium fracking that would industrialize public lands and threaten to pollute both air and water in the region’s most important aquifer, the Coconino. Fracking in the region also would threaten spills into the Little Colorado River and damage endangered species habitat.

“As a retired petroleum mining engineer and local landowner, I can say that injecting acid and other chemicals into rock layers above our aquifers is dangerous and difficult to control,” said Kevin Gibson, cofounder of Protect Our Water Arizona. “Every town, ranch, and family in our region depends on that groundwater. Risking it risks our collective future.”

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, says the U.S. Bureau of Land Management violated several federal laws by refusing to conduct new environmental reviews or consult with area tribes when it approved the leases. Instead the agency issued two “determination of NEPA adequacy” checklists, claiming a 1988 resource management plan that predates modern fracking technology satisfies its legal obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“It’s reckless and illegal to sell fracking rights on public land without any environmental review,” said Taylor McKinnon, senior public lands campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This lawsuit will force the government to follow its own laws to protect northern Arizona’s water, wildlife and public lands.”

Companies are targeting the Little Colorado River Valley for helium, oil and gas development because of rising helium prices. A recent state permit for helium fracking on nearby lands authorized acid “stimulation” on about 80 wells. During that process acid and other chemicals will be injected into rock layers within 150 feet of the Coconino aquifer, a critical regional water source. Acid fracturing, as it’s also called, often uses higher concentrations of acid and other dangerous chemicals than conventional hydraulic fracking.

“Water is precious, especially in an arid place like Arizona,” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter. “We need to know the impacts of this proposed acid fracking on the water resources and demand that everything possible is done to protect the aquifer and the Little Colorado. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is putting them at risk without even evaluating the impacts.”

The September 2018 sale was a part of a Trump administration policy that requires the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to offer industry-nominated parcels for lease and discourages environmental and public review for oil and gas leasing decisions.

”The Trump administration is at it again with another half-baked scheme to sacrifice federal public lands to the fracking industry,” said Rebecca Fischer, climate and energy program attorney with WildEarth Guardians. “We’ll push back in court to protect our water, climate, and clean air every step of the way.”

More than 80,000 people sent letters opposing the lease sale, including U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.). Residents of Navajo and Apache counties formed new organizations, NoFrackingAZ and Protect Our Water, opposing the plan, and gathered 1,700 local signatures. Formal administrative protests from 158 locals and several conservation groups also urged the BLM to cancel the sale.

“In the absence of any environmental analysis, our community and environment are exposed to unquantified risks,” said Erik Test, local resident and cofounder of No Fracking AZ. “Our health, safety, and future demand that we make informed decisions while we still can.”

The leased lands straddle the Little Colorado River and Silver Creek, home to two federally protected threatened species — the Little Colorado spinedace, a silvery minnow-like fish, and the yellow-billed cuckoo, a bird known for its distinctive call. The leased lands are also adjacent to the Petrified Forest National Park, the Navajo Nation, and rural communities.

The Center, Sierra Club, and WildEarth Guardians WildEarth Guardians

are represented by attorneys Lizzy Potter and Sarah Stellberg of Advocates for the West.