'They're going to disrupt Mother Earth.' Protest held over helium extraction proposal

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

WINDOW ROCK, Arizona — A day after several members of the Navajo Nation voiced their objections to a bill that proposes starting helium production in two Northern Agency chapters, the Navajo Nation Council referred the legislation to the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee for further discussion.

In January, the tribal council tabled the legislation after questions rose about a verbal commitment by the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company to share 1% of its profit with Sanostee and Teec Nos Pos chapters, where extraction activities would take place.

The council voted 22-0 in favor to refer the legislation on April 19.

Speaker Seth Damon, the bill's sponsor, recommended the action because additional documents might be added to the legislation, including a profit-sharing agreement.

That agreement remains in talks by the company's board of directors, the relevant chapters, Navajo Nation Department of Justice and the tribe's minerals department, Damon said.

A protest against the proposed developments happened before the start of the council's spring session on April 18.

"Dooda helium," shouted Anthony Peterson, of Teec Nos Pos, Arizona, while he walked toward the council chamber.

He has lived in the community since infancy and described the proposition by Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company, a tribal enterprise commonly referred to as NNOGC, to drill wells into the Earth's crust as dangerous to residents and the environment.

Teec Nos Pos, Arizona resident Anthony Peterson, left, protests a proposal to start helium production in Teec Nos Pos and Sanostee chapters during demonstration on April 18 in Window Rock, Arizona.

Several community members said they were told this month that NNOGC is planning to place more than 60 wellheads in an area known as Tohachee Wash, where homes are located, and residents raise livestock.

On April 3, the Teec Nos Pos Chapter government held a forum where NNOGC officials educated residents about the proposal.

Peterson was among those who questioned the methods that NNOGC would employ, including pumping water from aquifers and using the San Juan River.

With Teec Nos Pos under severe drought, how does using these water resources benefit the community, he said.

"They're going to disrupt Mother Earth. They're going to take the sacred things out of the Earth," Peterson said.

The proposal is being pushed by NNOGC under "lies and deceit," he said.

Speaker Seth Damon meets with protestors on April 18 outside the Navajo Nation Council chamber in Window Rock, Arizona.

Throughout the protest in front of the council chamber, protestors called on delegates to vote against the bill.

Speaker Damon spoke with some of the demonstrators before the session. Although his comments were brief, he told them that he is open to returning to Sanostee and Teec Nos Pos for further discussion about the project.

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"Again, if the community does not support this, I'm not going to move forward with it," Damon said.

Christina Morris grew up in Teec Nos Pos and took issue with NNOGC's forum, stating that the company "spoon-fed" community members with certain details about the bill, which is more than 800 pages, and their action only came after they left residents in the dark.

Demonstrators in Window Rock, Arizona on April 18 call on the Navajo Nation Council to vote against a bill to allow helium development in Sanostee and Teec Nos Pos chapters.

"There's a lot of ifs in the legislation – if this, if that. It opens the door for further exploration, not just to helium, it's to other minerals and oil and gas," she said.

In presentations to delegates, NNOGC officials said they have resolutions from Sanostee and Teec Nos Pos chapters that support helium developments.

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The resolutions – approved in 2019 by Sanostee and in 2017 and in 2019 by Teec Nos Pos – are attached to the bill. Each one was passed by less than 30 residents.

"The community is not the chapter, that's the government. No one knocked on our door and said, we want to hear your opinion on this," Morris said.

Sanostee Chapter members voted 47 in favor and 17 opposed to rescind the chapter resolution on April 10 because of "ongoing and unresolved community concerns regarding policy, stipulations, parameters and other legal language."

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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