Blackfeet Group Addresses ‘Drought of Information’ Over Fracking

By Beacon Staff

BLACKFEET RESERVATION – Seen from high above the Continental Divide, the green and yellow grasslands of the Blackfeet Reservation shoot out of the mountains like an endless quilt. For the most part the landscape is untouched, save for a handful of oil wells that checker the area, all in an effort to extract oil from the Bakken shale formation. It’s the same mineral formation that has created an all-out oil rush in eastern Montana and North Dakota.

The boom in oil exploration east of the divide has raised concerns by environmentalists and tribal members who say the drilling could permanently change the landscape east of Glacier National Park. Now a small group of women is organizing on social media for what tribal member Lori New Breast said “will be a very active summer on this side of the mountains.”

Hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking,” requires millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand to be pumped into the ground to break up dirt, open fissures and release natural gas via a well. Critics of the process say it creates wastewater that can contaminate groundwater if spilled. Much of the wastewater is kept in a holding tank before being trucked off site.

New Breast said rumors of unreported spills, contaminated water and under-studied oil exploration have run rampant on the reservation and some tribal members are beginning to ask questions.

“Everyone needs gas, but what will happen to the northern border of the United States?” she said. “This is not (the oil company’s) home and I don’t care who issues the leases. This is our homeland.”

According to New Breast, there are at least five oil companies operating on the Blackfeet Reservation. Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corp. holds drilling leases closest to the eastern boundary of Glacier National Park. In late June, during a flight over the area, New Breast pointed out potential drill pad sites just a few miles from the park. The exact number of wells drilled is unknown, but New Breast estimated there are more than 30 on the reservation with plans for more this summer. She said the Blackfeet Tribe and Bureau of Indian Affairs (which permits the wells) have released little information about what is being done on the reservation.

Multiple attempts were made by the Beacon last week to contact officials with the Blackfeet Tribe, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Anschutz Exploration Corp. of Denver for comment about oil exploration on the reservation. All of those attempts were unsuccessful.

“The question is how many wells are up against (Glacier National) Park and the answer is we don’t know,” said Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association. “The industrialization of Glacier’s front door is a huge issue.”

One concern with oil exploration on the Blackfeet Reservation is that environmental assessments are only completed for individual wells, but not the entire system of wells and roads being created. Jamison said his group and the National Park Service have had trouble even obtaining information about work being done. When the Park Service does find out about a new well, it is quick to respond. On March 7, it issued a statement for an environmental assessment for the Red Blanket Well. It began: “Glacier National Park understands and appreciates the economic opportunities that oil and gas development may bring to the Blackfeet Tribe. As we have expressed before, should development occur the Park would like to see it done in such a way that park resources and the traditional homeland of the Blackfeet are not harmed.” It goes on to raise concerns about the loss of scenic vistas to the east of the park, air quality, wildlife habitats, invasive plants and weeds and the lack of an overall environmental impact statement.

New Breast agrees, and said if something is not done soon her homeland could be scarred for good. With the help of a handful of Facebook groups, including one called Blackfeet Women Against Fracking, New Breast hopes to inform others of the dangers of fracking. On the Facebook page, people have been sharing information and sightings of industrial build-up. New Breast said it is hard to find good information about the exploration and concerns are often overshadowed by the promise of good-paying jobs on the reservation. According to her, unemployment on the Blackfeet fluctuates between 60 and 80 percent.

“Most Americans or Montanans have no reference point for that,” she said.

Fracking pads are seen near Browning on the east side of Glacier National Park in this aerial photograph. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Also leading the effort to inform people on the reservation is Pauline Matt. She has organized a few public meetings, but has been met with opposition by some in the tribal government. Most people she has talked to are concerned about water quality near the wells. Because fracking requires so much water, wells must be placed near rivers and streams.

“What angers me is how the oil companies are able to put wells in the wetlands and near creeks,” Matt said. “My goal is to put a moratorium on fracking, to stop it until we know more.”

She understands the need for oil exploration, but said there is a better and safer way to do it. To raise awareness, Matt and New Breast are planning on holding a water walk from Chief Mountain to Heart Butte, along the Rocky Mountain Front, beginning Aug. 6. Every time the group comes to a body of water they will pray and bless it. New Breast said it will be a way for them to reclaim their land from outside forces.

“This isn’t their land; they don’t love it like we do,” she said. “We were here before the United States was a country, before Montana was a state.”

The questions being raised by local groups may be leading to some results. Recently, the tribe announced that a series of water rights meetings would be held in Browning, East Glacier, Heart Butte, St. Mary and Cut Bank. The first was on July 9.

But New Breast is still worried about what is happening on her land, concerns not limited to water quality, but the preservation of sacred lands significant to her people.

“(The oil companies) don’t care, they will just drill over graves,” she said. “My people are not going to leave, we’re not going to migrate unless our land becomes unlivable.”

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