Oil fire burns out, but questions linger

Navajo Nation officials raise questions over how the involved agencies need to do a better job of coordinating up-to-date information

James Fenton
  • The fire at a WPX Energy oil production site burned itself out this afternoon, according to a company spokesman.
  • Crews who were at the site when it went up in flames are beginning preliminary investigations into the cause.
  • Navajo Nation officials at a meeting today said they wanted more stakeholders involved and more dialogue on getting information to impacted residents.
  • Tribal officials say "probably 90 percent of the all the other chapters don't have response plans" for emergencies.
VanDenBerg, a district operations manager with WPX Energy, speaks on Thursday to families who evacuated their homes after a fire at an oil production site broke out.

BLOOMFIELD — As an oil storage tank fire finally burned itself out in Nageezi today, a meeting held by WPX Energy Inc. at a hotel where 10 evacuated families have been staying revealed the need for better coordination and information from the tribal, state, federal and community-level organizations invested in resolving the fire.

The fire broke out Monday night at a WPX oil production site off U.S. Highway 550, south of Nageezi. Officials decided to allow the blaze to burn itself out.

WPX spokesman Kelly Swan said in a text message tonight that the fire went out this afternoon and WPX is getting security in place at the site to ensure safety as workers begin to remove destroyed equipment from the well site.

Randy VanDenBerg, WPX district operations manager, told the 25 people at the morning meeting that the families evacuated to the hotel would likely be staying there tonight as the company was hiring outside help to ensure the blaze was extinguished safely. According to the WPX website, crews who were at the site when it went up in flames were beginning preliminary investigations into the cause.

VanDenBerg said the company, with coordination from San Juan County fire officials, would be able to escort families to their homes on Friday to pick up clothes or check on animals.

One person who had to evacuate told VanDenBerg that animals at the affected homes were not faring well, including dogs she said were "foaming at the mouth" and "very weak."

Clarissa Murphy, who had to leave her home on Monday night, told The Daily Times previously that one of her family's seven dogs, along with four chickens, died in the days after the blaze.

VanDenBerg said WPX had arranged for a local veterinarian to care for residents' pets or perform autopsies on any animals that may have died.

Murphy told VanDenBerg, through tears, that an intoxicated worker contracted by WPX who was staying at the hotel "harassed" her Wednesday evening at the hotel, saying "a lot of hateful things" that hurt her, she said. Murphy said she contacted the police about the incident.

VanDenBerg said that worker was "relieved of duty," but neither he nor Swan could say whether the man was actually fired or moved to another hotel.

Clarissa Murphy wipes away tears on Thursday during a meeting at the Bloomfield hotel where her family is staying after they were forced to evacuate their home in Nageezi on Monday night due to a fire at a WPX Energy oil production site.

An hour into the morning meeting, several Navajo Nation officials arrived and quickly sparked questions over how the involved agencies need to do a better job of coordinating up-to-date information.

Former Navajo Nation Council Delegate Danny Simpson told the two dozen residents and officials gathered in the open-air courtyard at the hotel that he was frustrated. Simpson said he wanted more stakeholders to be present at the meeting and a greater dialogue between them to offer more information to the impacted residents.

"We are not working together to provide proper information," Simpson said. "Navajo Nation, (San Juan) County, WPX, federal government, Nageezi Chapter. They should have all gotten together and coordinated a good type of report for the people here."

Simpson said the meeting WPX set up to brief the families should have involved more stakeholders.

"It's frustrating," he said. "(The EPA's) Region 6 should be here. Region 9 should be here talking to us. The fire chief should be here. We should all get together to provide accurate information. ... The chapter's at fault for not having a good (emergency) response plan in place. But it's not just Nageezi Chapter. Probably 90 percent of the all the other chapters don't have response plans."

Navajo Nation EPA Executive Director Donald Benn arrived late to the meeting from Window Rock, Ariz., because he said he thought it was being held at a chapter house. Benn said it "was surprising what happened," and that he wanted "to compel WPX to do the right thing."

Benn insisted the meeting should have been held at a chapter house, but when VanDenBerg told him WPX arranged to hold the morning meetings at the hotel for the convenience of the families, Benn demurred.

He handed VanDenBerg a prepared list of requests from the tribal EPA, including a list of the total number of people evacuated, a copy of WPX's "contingency plan" and a description of the well logs and other drilling information for the site.

Donald Benn, executive director of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, speaks on Thursday at a meeting with Nageezi residents at a Bloomfield hotel.

Some information Benn delivered at the meeting conflicted with information VanDenBerg offered before Benn arrived.

Benn said the fire burned "fracking fluid and sand (used during hydraulic fracturing operations)" and that 2,200 gallons of "fluid" caught fire.

VanDenBerg said, for the second time at the meeting, that no fluid or sand used during the fracking of any of the six wells were at the site on Monday when it broke out.

Evacuated resident Jolinda White said she was grateful to WPX for providing hotel rooms, meals and supplies, such as snacks and diapers, for the evacuated families. But she asked about an emergency evacuation plan because, she said, there was confusion on Monday night.

The EPA has been conducting daily aerial testing of the fire area, and, so far, testing has not shown harmful or hazardous readings, VanDenBerg said.

He conceded the ongoing response to the fire that broke out Monday night was not ideal.

"Was this handled perfectly?" he said. "I don't know of any incident that is handled perfectly. But safety is very important to us. ... It will take us some time to rebuild our reputation after this."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.