Shirley McNall is nicknamed “Sug,” which is short for sugar. But don’t think this 73-year old eco-warrior is a sweet pushover. She describes herself as “an independent Granny who is advocating for a cleaner environment for now and for future generations,” and she’s leading the charge to protect her family and community in northwest New Mexico.
“I’ve basically been in oil and gas all my life,” she reports from the small town of Aztec, where she lives. Her grandfather worked on a wildcatting crew doing exploratory drilling out West as far back as the 1920s, and she and her first husband lived in the middle of a “patch” when her husband was employed taking care of gas wells.
“It was pretty benign at the time,” she remembers. But then, they moved into town so their daughter could go to junior high. They ended up in a house only 2,400 feet from a gas well.
“It started leaking,” she remembers. “Gas would get into the house at night. We were terrified our heater would spark it and cause a big explosion.”
“It dawned on me that this is not good!…I’ve been a busy bee working on this ever since.”
By “working on this,” Sug means organizing seminars on the threats oil and gas development pose and taking visitors on a “Toxic Tour of Hell” she’s put together. The tour includes nasty industrial sites in residential neighborhoods that are dotted with leaky gas tanks, oil on the ground, fumes venting into the air, and non-stop compressor noise.
Though it seems unthinkable that Americans would have to live under such duress, Sug attributes the crisis to the fact that “the average American thinks natural gas is a clean fuel.” But it’s not. “It’s dirty and unhealthy,” and Sug tries to educate folks by showing them just exactly how bad it is. Although burning natural gas emits half the carbon dioxide as burning coal in power plants, the process of getting natural gas out of the ground creates methane pollution. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a twenty-year time frame. In addition, leaking methane comes packaged with other harmful pollutants that impact the health of those who live, work, learn and play nearby.
Sug is particularly concerned that so much fracking is going on so close to where people live and kids go to school. In her San Juan, NM county, developers are allowed to drill 100 feet away from a house. Children are especially vulnerable to air pollution since their bodies are still developing and have a longer time to live with environmental onslaughts that can develop into diseases.
“At the local elementary school, there’s a gas well 400 feet from the school building. I’ve been there and found leaks twice, so severe they were overwhelming,” Sug reports. “The stink coming out of that well! Teachers have complained that they can smell it in their classrooms.”
Oil and gas operations can expose children to the health and safety risks from air pollutants such as methane, diesel exhaust, particulate matter, and Volatile Organic Compounds like benzene. But Sug says that the wells being drilled in and around her community also contain hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs, can affect the brain and upper-respiratory system causing nausea, headaches, delirium, and dizziness. In a short period of time, exposure to the gas can lead to unconsciousness, followed by death. “Every oil and gas employee is required to wear a hydrogen sulfide monitor,” she notes. “If it goes off, they know they can’t go near the well.” Regular citizens like Sug have no such protection – even though there are eight gas wells within a half mile of Sug’s house, and she believes that four of them are hydrogen sulfide positive.
Sug recounts one Christmas Eve day when, walking to retrieve her newspaper from her mailbox 900 feet down the road, the air pollution was so toxic she became dizzy, disoriented, and almost too wobbly to walk. She knew if she collapsed she’d freeze to death so she forced herself to make it back to her house. Later, representatives from British Petroleum, which was constructing gas wells in the area, came out to investigate and discovered a new gas well was leaking. “I could have died out there,” says Sug.
Sug notes that as a country, we need to use a lot less gas and a lot more clean renewable energy. But she doesn’t expect that switch to happen particularly fast under President Trump or his Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt.
“Trump doesn’t care if we all drop dead from dirty air tomorrow,” says Sug. As for all the clean air regulations on the books, she believes that, under Pruitt, “they’re being thrown in the toilet.”
Still, she declares, “We can’t give up.”
“I realize we need jobs, energy, and income,” she notes, referring to the arguments often used to justify fracking. “But our health, and the health of our kids, is more important.”
Sug has a great grandbaby coming in June. “That’s the reason I don’t sit around eating chocolate and knit booties,” she says with a chuckle.