Tribal Governments And Environmental Activists Oppose Proposed Wastewater Dumping

Aug 16, 2019

Earlier this summer, the Northern Arapaho Tribe came out against a proposal by the energy company Aetheon to discharge oilfield waste upstream of the Wind River. But the opposition was not for the reasons that some tribal members would like.

Micah Lott stands by a section of the Big Wind River in Riverton.
Credit Savannah Maher

Micah Lott is one of those tribal members.

He's lived in Arapahoe, just south of the Big Wind River, for most of his 26 years. That's how he got the nickname "Big Wind" while protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in 2016.

He said that he and his siblings grew up swimming and fishing in the Big and Little Wind Rivers and in Beaver Creek near their home.

"I didn't realize until much later in my life that we were actually living by our tribe's oilfields, and that as long as I've been alive and longer they've been using these rivers for discharge," Lott said, standing near a section of the Big Wind River in Riverton.

Lott is a citizen of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, which along with the Eastern Shoshone, operates ten oil and gas fields on the Wind River Reservation.

He's talking about this now because of Aetheon's proposal to discharge more than 8 million gallons of oil field waste water per day into the Alkali and Badwater Creeks, which flow into Boysen Reservoir and the Big Wind River.

"The justification for a lot [of this pollution] is that it's been happening for the last 100 years, it's been happening for the last 50 years," Lott said. "Now people are saying, 'hey, it might've been happening, but we can't allow it to happen anymore because we're starting to see the effects on our families.'"

Ryan Ortiz, director of the Northern Arapaho Tribe's Natural Resources Department, said that the tribe's opposition to the dumping has more to do with the economics of the Wind River Reservation than with pollution.

"We're concerned that the levels of contaminants, and chloride in particular, takes the remainder capacity of what can be released [upsteam of the Wind River,]" Ortiz said.

There are federal limits to the amount of pollution that can be discharged into the Wind River. If Aetheon is allowed to reach that limit with its dumping, Ortiz said that could get in the way of both tribes' economic development.

"It could stifle it for sure," he said. "We may not have the ability to increase production because it would cost too much to clean water."

So, the tribe isn't asking for less river pollution. It is asking Aetheon to clean its water more thoroughly, so that the tribes and other municipalities upstream of Boysen Reservoir will have the opportunity to dump their own oilfield waste in the future.

At a panel event in Riverton last month, a young Eastern Shoshone woman named Jessica Swallow brought this up to tribal leaders. Swallow said that speaking up at the panel wasn't easy because she was speaking to her elders.

"In [the Eastern Shoshone] way, when you're a young person, you're not really supposed to stand up and talk. You're supposed to sit back and listen," Swallow said.

This tension - between youth looking for action on environmental issues and elected officials who don't seem to share the same urgency - exists all over the world. But on Wind River, young people have an especially fine line to walk.

Someday, Swallow said she wants to pursue a seat in Eastern Shoshone tribal leadership and help her tribe become less reliant on fossil fuels. For now, she has to be careful about how she advocates for that goal.

"I have to say that first, 'look, I'm a young person but I need to say something,'" Swallow said. "[Speaking at the panel] was scary, but if I don't get up and say what needs to be said, then who's going to?"

Boysen Reservoir
Credit Savannah Maher

Eastern Shoshone Business Councilman Leslie Shakespeare said he hears the concerns of young people like Lott and Swallow and that he shares many of them.

"First of all I would support any youth in whatever role they want to take in being advocates for the environment and speaking out on climate change," Shakespeare said. "And we also know that over the years, with our reliance [on fossil fuels], we're going to have to wean ourselves off."

Shakespeare said it's a balance. He thinks about ways to diversify the Reservation's economy down the road. For now, though, there are tribal members who need help paying their bills and feeding their families. Jobs in the oilfields and oil and gas revenue in their monthly per-capita checks can help with that.

"Oil and gas has essentially been our bread and butter for our economy. Eighty-five percent of our money that we make goes to our tribal members, 15 percent goes to our tribal government," Shakespeare said.

As for Aetheon's proposed wastewater dumping, Shakespeare said the Eastern Shoshone Tribe stands with the Northern Arapaho - they oppose the discharge as long as it prevents the tribes from expanding their own production

Micah Lott wishes the tribes would oppose it more forcefully and take concrete steps to curb their own oil and gas reliance, so it wouldn't be hypocritical to ask energy companies like Aetheon to do the same. But he understands why that's easier said than done.

"We have to think of our own economic development and what that looks like for our people, Lott said. "But essentially where I stand right now is I am actively opposing the fossil fuel industry and that includes the further production of resources that we have [on Wind River]."

The state Department of Environmental Quality is in the process of reviewing Aetheon's proposed wastewater dumping.

Savannah Maher is a Report for America Corps member, you can learn more about the project at reportforamerica.org