AZTEC — Shirley "Sug" McNall says the San Juan Basin can be an outdoors paradise for visitors. But for those who live here and breathe the air, she says, it's just plain hell.
McNall, 69, is a member of an ad hoc environmentalist group — with friends Tweeti Blancett, Jan Rees and Kris Dixon — called the Four Grans.
"Tweeti's family, like mine, were homesteaders and ranchers, with a long feuding history of dealing with the oil companies," McNall said. "... Jan is our group's expert on wildlife and the environment, and Kris is our statistician and organizer."
The four Aztec grandmothers, who met at a clean-air conference more than a decade ago, work toward improving San Juan County's air quality.
For eight years, McNall has taken people on tours of the area in her small, sky-blue pickup truck, its tailgate plastered with progressive bumper stickers that stand out in Republican-dominated San Juan County. Her tour skips popular stops like Aztec Ruins or Quality Waters in favor of gas pads and waste disposal sites she says are guilty of polluting the air with noxious chemicals.
What McNall calls the "Toxic Tour of Hell," began in 2005 after she attended a summit on oil and gas industry accountability in Farmington. She started with seven sites around the county she says are polluting.
"The summit brought together scientists, tribes, officials, and they wanted to actually see the sites they were hearing about, and I said I'd show them," she said.
Over the years, McNall said she's given the tour to a number of people, including film crews from Japan and South Africa and an official from the Natural Resources Defense Council's office in Washington, D.C. She can also be seen in the 2010 HBO documentary on hydraulic fracturing — or "fracking" — called "Gasland."
McNall's family homesteaded more than 700 acres in the Crouch Mesa area and moved to her home off of Navajo Dam Road near Tiger Park in 1976. In the years she has lived there with her husband, Warren, McNall says she has seen wells pop up around her property.
In 2010, McNall and a group of friends formed the San Juan Bucket Brigade, a local program of Global Community Monitor, a nonprofit human rights organization, to take air quality samples at three oil and gas facilities in the county. McNall said all three came back with elevated levels of carcinogens that are above what the Environmental Protection Agency recommends.
"This county has higher than average rates of asthma, especially among children, and elevated rates of cancer, which is alarming," said McNall, who says the air pollution has caused her and others eye irritation and trouble breathing. "The problem is that a lot of the oil field workers know what's going on, but they don't dare say a word. Of course, the workers get protective gear to wear, but what do us residents get?"
San Juan County Operations Officer Mike Stark argues air quality in the area is cleaner than in the past and is showing signs of improving even more with the planned unit reductions at two major power plants, Four Corners Power Plant and San Juan Generating Station, both near Farmington.
"We should actually see some improved air quality in the Four Corners with these environmentally friendly unit reductions," Stark said. "And oil and gas drilling has been light the last three years. So, once again, less pollution. Things should be getting better."
McNall said she understands the need for energy. Born and raised in the area, her grandparents, uncles and first husband worked in the oil patch. Despite that, McNall says she is enraged refineries can get away with emitting carcinogens and chemicals that pollute the air and do so in close proximity to neighborhoods.
The latest addition to her tour, stop No. 8, is a well site near McCoy Elementary School's playground along Martinez Lane.
McNall added the well site, owned by XTO Energy Inc., a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, early last month when her friend, former City Commissioner Jack Scott, drove by the school and smelled gas fumes.
"Warren and I got a call from Jack telling us that the gas pad was stinkin' something fierce, despite their car's windows rolled up when they drove by," McNall said.
She said she quickly wrote to Aztec Municipal School District Superintendent Kirk Carpenter, Aztec City Manager Josh Ray and Brandon Powell, a field inspector with the Aztec division office of the Environment Department's Oil Conservation Division.
Emily Snooks, a spokeswoman for XTO Energy, said no leak occurred at the well site.
Inspections of the company's well sites by an XTO Energy Lease Operator are conducted approximately every other day, Snooks wrote in an email.
"In February, XTO Energy staff responded to a complaint of an odor," Snooks wrote in an email. "An XTO employee met an inspector from the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division at the well site. No leak was detected and XTO Energy was not fined or sited by the NMOCD."
Snooks said XTO staff reviewed several days of automated reports at the well and did not find a loss of gas volume or pressure, which would have indicated a leak.
"The XTO employee noticed a manual water dump valve on the separator was not as pliable as a new valve would be so just as a precaution, it was replaced," Snooks wrote.
San Juan County Commissioner Scott Eckstein, whose district includes Aztec and Bloomfield, said that in his eight years of service he has only received about four or five complaints over air pollution.
"I refer people who have complained to the state's Air Quality Bureau. They deal with refineries as far as emissions and regulations go," Eckstein said. "The handful of complaints over the years (have been) over a strong chemical smell from a refinery, for instance, but the state is in charge of that."
An air quality index report for San Juan County on the Environmental Protection Agency's website gives the county a "good" rating, with pollution in the air posing no threat to human health.
Despite that, McNall is adamant more should be done to regulate the county's oil and gas industry to ensure a clean and safe county for its residents, present and future.
"It's my purpose on the tour to show how people have to live among the wells and refineries and what that means to their pursuit of happiness and well-being," she said. "In this county, big oil always reins supreme."
James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.