Rankled but resilient: Owner of Step Back Inn in Aztec battles big oil

James Fenton The Daily Times
The Daily Times

AZTEC — All Tweeti Blancett wanted was for her neighbors on the southwest corner of Aztec Boulevard and North Main Avenue to clean up their mess.

She and husband, Linn Blancett, owners of the Step Back Inn in Aztec since 1993, have been fighting for more than a decade to get Western Refining to clean up and pay for damages the couple says were caused when petroleum leaked out of underground tanks at the gas station across the street, contaminating the land underneath their hotel. After years of attempts to get enforcement help from various agencies throughout the state, the Blancetts hired a lawyer and went to court, paid out-of-pocket expenses to have subsurface soil and groundwater testing conducted and appealed to local representatives -- without any results.

Numerous attempts to contact Western Refining senior spokesman Gary Hanson on Friday at the company's El Paso headquarters were unsuccessful.

None of that sits well with Tweeti Blancett -- a sixth-generation Southwest rancher related to Aztec founders, the Jaquez family -- who has seen this before.

The Blancetts' history in the area runs deep. Linn Blancett's great-grandfather was a scout for the U.S. Army, traveling to the San Juan Basin with Kit Carson in the 1870s.

Both Tweeti and Linn Blancett's struggles with oil and gas industry pollution go back to the 1980s at their cattle ranch in Hart Canyon. Tweeti Blancett says the industry contaminated soil and poisoned livestock on the ranch, but without subsurface rights, the couple called their home a loss and built the Aztec hotel a quarter-mile from the Animas River.

A self-described "cowgirl grandma," Tweeti Blancett's eyes sparkle with Texas charm. But there is an intensity that comes from the battle she and her husband have fought twice against players of the biggest local driver of the economy -- oil and gas companies. The fighting year after year has taken a bit of a toll. Tweeti Blancett has even entertained selling the hotel she loves, but selling a contaminated property offers only pennies on the dollar.

"I'm not a quitter, and I call things as I see them," she said. "This is an age-old story about the big guy bullying the runt and getting away with it because he can. State agencies can't enforce their own regulations, the courts are overrun with powerful corporate lawyers and even when the data is presented that pollution has occurred, the big players can simply ignore you and get a free pass from the very people who got campaign contributions from them. You'd think it'd wear me out, but it only makes me mad."

Western Refining, Inc., recorded a first quarter net income of $83.7 million in the first three months of this year, despite spending millions of dollars for major maintenance projects at its Gallup and El Paso refineries.

Regardless of the odds, Tweeti Blancett continues to stand -- all 5 feet 3 inches of her -- and fight.

"The gas plume that leaked from the gas station I only discovered after we bought this property and built our hotel," she said. "The first sign I got that something was terribly wrong was when I noticed the mulberry trees along the north side of our property began withering and dying."

Tweeti Blancett has spent the majority of her life as an active Republican, including service in the state legislature. She was a campaign coordinator for George W. Bush in 2000 and stumped for U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico. But she grew so disenchanted with the corruption and inaction in party politics that she eventually left her beloved party and became an Independent.

Tweeti Blancett has also taken her fight against the oil and gas industry across the country, appearing in the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and People magazine, as well as on the "NBC Nightly News" and with Samantha Bee on "The Daily Show."

But despite her efforts, fueled by copious glasses of sweet tea and a resolve to raise awareness of what she sees as the injustice of industry pollution, Tweeti Blancett is, so far, losing the battle.

The leak that she says occurred sometime in 1992 may also have been followed by another in the late 1990s due to unexplained losses of fuel from the station's premium gas storage tank.

In 2004, groundwater monitoring showed high levels of MTBE -- a gas additive that is difficult to clean up, is considered a health hazard and is now illegal in the state.

"This stuff is a hazard and is not just polluting our property, it is more than possible it's heading right into the (Animas) river," Tweeti Blancett said.

Her next appearance in district court is set for Nov. 2, though she considers this latest chance for justice yet another exercise in futility.

"I keep speaking up, asking questions and demanding answers from folks that don't sit well with a lot of them," she said. "And I'll keep demanding answers and accountability until this wrong is made right."

James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.