Navajos to run program protecting groundwater

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) 10-08

The Navajo Nation is taking over a program from the federal government aimed at protecting groundwater on the vast reservation – one of two tribes in the country to do so.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Oct. 22 that it has granted the tribe’s application to administer an underground injection control program for oil and gas injection wells.

The Navajo Nation has been moving toward overseeing a number of environmental programs in an effort to exercise sovereignty on tribal land. Earlier this year, the tribe passed a Superfund law that will allow it to clean up contaminated sites. The tribe has primary enforcement over its public water system and now has received approval from the EPA to monitor injection wells.

“We’ve been doing the work, so we felt that we were ready to take on responsibility of doing it ourselves completely,” said Bill Freeman, manager for the tribal injection control program.

The EPA’s decision will be published in the federal register and is subject to appeal.


The Navajo Nation passed its Safe Drinking Water Act in 2001, modeled after the federal law and has since developed regulations, and the technical, permitting and enforcement capacity to implement the injection control program.

The program will cover about 400 existing wells on the north and eastern part of the reservation where oil and gas drilling is prevalent. The tribal regulations for permitting and monitoring the injection wells are more strict than the federal government’s.

For example, the tribe requires that all injection wells be permitted, whereas some wells under the EPA’s regulations are grandfathered in, said David Albright, manager of the EPA’s groundwater office in San Francisco.

Until recently, the EPA had a staff engineer on the Navajo Nation, training inspectors and guiding them in permit application reviews and building program capacity. The engineer retired about a month ago, Albright said.

“This is his retirement gift,” he said.

Freeman and Albright said there have been no incidents of groundwater contamination from the injection wells.

Companies extract oil and gas from below the surface by injecting a treated solution into the wells. What they’re left with is large amounts of oily salt water or brine that are typically injected back into a well similar from what it was extracted.

“It’s been shown that they’re extremely effective in disposing of liquid waste underground if properly constructed and monitored and regulated,” Freeman said.