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NTU student maps Four Corners oil and gas wells

Using geographic information technology, a pair of brothers at Navajo Technical University created a map of the area's oil and gas wells — and how close they are to communities and water sources

James Fenton
jfenton@daily-times.com
Jayvion Chee speaks on April 8 during an interview in Shiprock. The Navajo Technical University student developed a map of oil and gas drilling sites and their proximity to communities in San Juan County and on the Navajo Nation.
  • An NTU student mapped 87 oil and gas wells to show their proximity to communities and water sources.
  • Jayvion Chee was honored as NTU’s Student of the Year at the American Indian College Fund’s banquet.
  • Chee has since presented his research at conferences from Washington, D.C., to Crownpoint.
  • Thanks to a $1,000 grant, he is using a drone to augment the map and make it more interactive.

SHIPROCK — Navajo Technical University student Jayvion Chee hopes to raise awareness of the potential environmental effects that oil and gas operations have on the Navajo Nation and San Juan County. 

Over the last year, Chee has developed a map of recently drilled oil and gas wells that he documented using GIT, or geographic information technology, to show their proximity to communities and major sources of water, including the San Juan River. Chee's project was funded through an internship with a South Dakota-based geospatial company, Kiksapa Consulting.

Chee's work earned him recognition from his school. In March, the 21-year-old was named NTU’s Student of the Year at the American Indian College Fund’s banquet in Minneapolis.

Ramsey Seweingyawma, assistant professor of Geospatial Engineering Technology at NTU, said he studies water on the Navajo Nation and asked Chee to come up with a project idea.

"Previous internships have studied renewable energy, drought analysis, mostly," Seweingyawma said. "Jayvion came along and said he came up with fracking water. I’m very proud of him. I’m a little jealous, too. He’s gotten farther than I have. He’s an example of a young person getting a voice out there  I wish I could get a second version. At that point, he can be a huge influence to younger generations."

This summer, Seweingyawma and other NTU students will head to Adelphi, Md., to the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to use the facility's super computer to process a lot of the data Chee has collected.

Jayvion Chee, a student at Navajo Technical University, flies a drone on April 8 at his grandfather's farm in Shiprock.

Chee has been busy presenting his research at various conferences nationwide. In November, he presented at the All Nations Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation conference in Washington, D.C., and then again in December at the First Americans Land-Grant Consortium’s annual conference in Denver, Colo. Chee also presented at NTU’s annual Research Day in February in Crownpoint and at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s student conference in Minneapolis earlier this year.

Chee said he hopes to use his research to help raise awareness of oil and gas development by speaking at chapter houses throughout the Navajo Nation. Ultimately, he would like to develop course curriculum to enhance the GIT curriculum at NTU and other colleges and universities.

Chee also plans to continue his studies at NTU, where he is seeking a bachelor's degree in environmental science and natural resources.

This summer, Chee will take part in a methane study at Navajo Mine as part of an internship program with Koveva Ltd., a Colorado-based company that works on projects to convert study and harness unused energy sources.

Jayvion Chee, a student at Navajo Technical University, sets up a drone April 8 at his grandfather's farm in Shiprock. Chee is using the drone to augment a map he and his brother created of oil and gas drilling sites and their proximity to communities in San Juan County and on the Navajo Nation.

With the help of a drone, Chee is now adding video and still photography data to his mapping project.

Through a $1,000 grant from the University of New Mexico for the New Mexico Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, Chee recently outfitted a drone with a camera that he has started piloting around the county based on the data points for his map. The goal is to add interactivity and interest in his map's data, he said.

Seweingyawma said this fall he hopes to post Chee's map on the NTU website. Until then, he said, he updates progress on Chee's and other student's work on the NTU Spatial Science Facebook page. Videos shot by Chee's drone are posted there.

Chee said he hopes to one day work for the military or federal government to explore the use of technology in the collection of scientific data. He also would like to work on projects that benefit the Navajo Nation.

Through his research, Chee located and mapped 87 wells that he said were drilled from January 2011 to July last year. Jayvion's brother, Teverrick Chee, who is an environmental science major, collaborated on the project.

"I wanted to prove that there are some (wells drilled) on the Navajo Nation, some on the Eastern Agency," Jayvion Chee said. "What I wanted to do was to see where they are at. I discovered that some are close by the (Navajo Agricultural Products Industry) land farming area. I wanted to show how close to the city limits these wells are."

Gary Clark, left, watches his grandson, Jayvion Chee, fly a drone on April 8 at Clark's farm in Shiprock.

Since last summer, Chee, who lives in the community of Rabbitbrush, said his research has led him to his grandfather's farm on the west side of Shiprock. He said he found a well site nearby.

Chee's grandfather, Gary Clark, said he lost 75 percent of his alfalfa, corn, cantaloupe and watermelon crops after he was unable to access irrigation water last August after 3 million gallons of contaminated water from the Gold King Mine in Colorado was carried down the Animas and San Juan rivers. Farmers like Clark rely exclusively on the San Juan River to irrigate their crops.

Clark said he is concerned about pollution from all fronts and sees his grandsons' project as a positive way to make more people on the Navajo Nation aware of the degree of oil and gas development and the risks that it represents.

Jayvion Chee, left, and his grandfather, Gary Clark, talk during an interview April 8 at the Nataani Nez Restaurant in Shiprock.

Chee said finding oil and gas development so close to water sources and seeing the problems his grandfather faced last summer have raised his awareness and concerns.

"They're fracking all over San Juan County. The river's so close to it. The river water," he said. "If we don't bring it to everybody's attention now, it's going to lead up to contamination of the (San Juan) river."

His brother added that it's not the actual process of fracking that leads to pollution.

"The true cause is flow-back," said Teverrick Chee. "When they shoot that water back in, they only catch 30 percent of the water. And what they do catch, they usually shoot back into the ground. They're not required by law to clean it. They take the closest source of water, which, often, is potable water."

Earlier this month, a Center for Western Priorities report showed there were 1,477 reported spills by the oil and gas industry in the state in 2015. Although the majority of those spills occurred in the Permian Basin in the southeastern corner of the state, the occurrence of spills and potential ground and water contamination gives Chee's project heightened focus.

Jayvion Chee, right, sets up a drone on April 8 in Shiprock while his brother, Teverrick Chee, left, and grandfather, Gary Clark, center, look on. The Chee brothers, both students at Navajo Technical University, have developed a map of oil and gas drilling sites and their proximity to communities in San Juan County and on the Navajo Nation.

Industry officials defend their practices of drilling for oil and gas. Susan Alvillar, a spokeswoman for WPX Energy, which is actively drilling in the San Juan Basin, said concerns over water contamination caused by the industry are overblown.

Alvillar said that if there ever is a spill, several lines of defense are in place to mitigate any possible pollution hazard.

"In my experience, (any spills) get taken care of immediately," Alvillar said. "With the quantity of water we handle and the human beings and equipment we use, we are always prepared."

Alvillar said well sites have built-in containment systems to control possible spills of production water or oil, and workers are dedicated toward resolving any leaks or spills if they occur.

"If it's a coffee cup-full, WPX wants to know about it, and we take care of it," Alvillar said.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.