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An Inside Look at What Happens When Gas Drillers Are Exempt from Environmental Law

Rancher Chris Velasquez knows first hand what gas drilling has done to communities, and the land, water and wildlife of New Mexico.

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When I mention the conditions I witnessed on the Rosa to the acting director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, the state's main industry group, Deborah Seligman asks me why I didn't report the violations. "Did you write them down? You took pictures. Did you call them?"

If we saw 100 wells that day, I reply, is it my job to track down and notify each company? Whose job is it? I ask her. Is it the rancher's job? Because, I'm thinking, he's already got a job.

No, she agrees, it's the industry's responsibility, and she maintains they police themselves just fine.

In 2005, Velasquez and Blancett walked out on the BLM ranchers' working group. It was, Velasquez says, a waste of his time. "I used to spend a lot of time with the guys from the BLM," he says. "I thought I was doing good, we were making progress. I found out I was just chasing my tail.

"We were fighting the same thing over and over again. They'd tell us in the meetings, 'Well, we got everything taken care of.' Okay, let's go out and look at it. I'll be darned if the first time we stopped here, it hit them right in the nose. 'Oh it shouldn't be like that. We're going to get it fixed. Next time you come out here it's gonna be fixed. We're gonna have it done.' Yeah right.

"We were the only suckers who weren't getting paid."

A year later, Velasquez gave up on the Rosa as well. Basically, he says, cattle and gas development on this scale can't co-exist. There's the constant traffic of water-hauling and maintenance trucks, heavy machinery scraping away at the muddy roads, drilling and fracturing rigs. Animals get hit. They drink from temporary reserve pits, catch basins, and puddles containing the byproducts of gas production: methanol, glycol, antifreeze used to defrost transmission pipes.

Velasquez documented as his animals lost on average a sixth of their weight in four years. He took pictures of cows and calves losing hair at their muzzles, a sign they'd been drinking polluted water. He had the herd tested for petroleum products -- a $4,500 endeavor -- and found all but two were positive for at least trace amounts. He sent pond water to a lab when he suspected it had been contaminated after a near-by reserve pit overflowed its berm. When eight of his cattle died in one week, he footed the bill for the autopsy ($550 for one animal). "When they opened her up, her liver had turned light pink, and it disintegrated as soon as the air hit it. It was like mushy at first when you pick it up with your fingers, then it just went through your fingers. Dissolved," he says. "And it's a slow death, it's not something that they can die right away from it. They kind of walk around there, with their head down until finally they lay down and die. All their organs quit on them."

When twenty of his cows got into some glycol or methanol-laced water, he lost that year's calves. He shows me the test results, the receipts for all this, as well as the response from Phillips Petroleum when --18 months after the year of the lost calves -- they sent him a check for $9,900 for the "alleged" poisoning. "This is just a small token for what they've done," he says. "They've contaminated my entire outfit. They'll pay, but they won't admit wrongdoing."

Phillips, now merged into ConocoPhillips, declined to be interviewed for this story, but sent an email stating, "as the largest operator/producer in the basin, ConocoPhillips constantly seeks ways to mitigate the impact of drilling and production."

 
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