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An Oglala Lakota Attorney is fighting big gas companies on public lands in Converse County, Wyo.

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This is the first of a two-part series on a major fracking operative ongoing in Converse County, Wyo., which has dire consequences for the Native American tribes and non-Native populations in this area and the region surrounding it.

There is a war brewing in Converse County, Wyo., concerning expanding fracking well operations there. Already, about 1,300 fracking wells are already operating on private properties, with another 1,500 set to open on other private lands.

The Converse County project is due to cap out at 5,000 fracking wells, which means about 2,200 are slated to be opened on state and federal lands. The big payoff for this "so-called development" is that by the tenth year of this broad, all-encompassing, petrol operative, as many as 8,500 jobs will be created. But what price will progress negate? Forsaking clean air? Forsaking clean water? The creation of a cluttered landscape of fracking wells making Converse County look like a windmill farm filled with fracking wells instead of windmills?

Mario Gonzalez, an attorney representing the interest of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, along with other tribes, said that he did not even know about this project until a relative showed him a legal correspondence pertaining to a March 12 closing of comments period to set up consultation with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) . About 90 percent of the land in question is private land. The focus of Gonzalez's work, however, only deals with fracking wells designated to be planted on public lands (state and federal properties).

The BLM website states that the oil and gas companies (the "Operator Group") that will develop the CCOGP include Anadarko Petroleum Company, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, Devon Energy, EOG Resources, and SM Energy. The Operator Group proposes to develop approximately 5,000 oil and natural gas wells on 1,500 new multi-well pads over a 10-year period within a 1.5 million acre project area. Mineral ownership in the project area consists of 54 percent held by the federal government and 46 percent being held by the state government and private owners.

The Operator Group will use "directional, vertical, horizontal and other drilling techniques . . . to develop infrastructure to support oil and gas production in the project area including: well pads, roads, pipelines, power lines, compressor stations, electrical substations, and ancillary facilities such as water supply wells and water disposal facilities . . . and this Operator Group has requested year-round drilling to protect wildlife species in the project area," according to a press release written by Atty. Mario Gonzalez.

According to BLM, the project "could unlock 1.37 billion barrels of oil and 5.79 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and create about 8,000 jobs over the 40-year life of the project." The Oglala Sioux Tribe responded to the draft EIS prior to the March 12th deadline and voiced its concerns about air and water pollution that will directly impact the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Flaring natural gas has already directly impacted tribal water rights and fishing rights in the Cheyenne River, he said.

The Cheyenne River originates in Converse County, Wyoming upstream and borders the northwest portion of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation downstream, where the reservation boundary also extends to the middle channel of the river, has been affected by these hydraulic fracturing wells, along with other waterways in the region, the press release states.

"Many of the tribes in and around Converse County still rely on fishing and hunting for a big part of their people's diets. In a lot of ways, for them, not much has changed compared to the old days. Some tribes rely on a steady diet of fish for their sustenance. We take fishing and hunting very seriously. Some of these tribes are known as "the fish people" or "the fish eaters," particularly the eastern Sioux tribes," Gonzales told this writer in a series of telephone interviews.

Of grave concern is that these fracking wells cause water and air pollution. Contamination of the ground water in Converse County, as well as contamination to the Cheyenne River and other waterways in the region, are a threat to the lives of humans and wildlife, not to leave out the fact that it's bad for vegetation. The Converse County fracking initiative is in direct opposition to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 and the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1876. According to these two treaties, the Natives who live in the Converse County area and eastward, toward the Black Hills and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, have fishing rights on the Cheyenne River and other waterways in this region. These Natives also have hunting rights on the private and public lands in this area. Three are also sundry agricultural concerns in this region that rely on clean, fresh water for the crops to grow.

"If we don't have clean, fresh water, we don't have anything," Atty. Gonzalez said. He also told this writer that some of the people in the area around Converse County have been complaining about getting nosebleeds from all the flaring associated with burning off the extra gas from fracking wells. Children are getting sick, which is a very bad sign, too.

"This isn't just a problem with the Native American communities who live in this region, but non-Native neighborhoods, too. To have so many fracking wells in such a concentrated area has led to a decline in health of many of the residents who live in this area," Gonzalez said.

Sooner or later, the tribes will have to face up to the consequences that all the damage that this fracking has done on private lands. The tribes will be faced with the very real question of whether legal action can and should be taken against all this private-land fracking and what it has wrought, along with the consequences it has shaped, Atty. Gonzalez explained.

Tribal President Troy Scott Weston stated that the Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota Sioux Nation, is located approximately 100 miles due west of the Converse County project area. This tribe is greatly concerned about natural gas flaring that will drift over the reservation and directly impact the health of reservation residents. "These energy companies promise jobs in exchange for poisoning not only the air that we breathe, but also poisoning the water that we drink and depend on for agriculture, irrigation, fishing and hunting, and other uses with toxic contaminates used in hydraulic fracking. It appears we have another DAPL type of project in the making that must be stopped," Wilson said.

On March 21, 2018, James Red Willow, who serves as Fifth Member of the Tribal Executive Committee, was instrumental in getting the Executive Committee to pass Executive Committee Resolution No. 18-55XB that requested "government-to-government consultations" with BLM and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on the draft EIS. The consultations are scheduled for April 17-18, 2018, at the Prairie Winds Casino Hotel Conference Room.

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Samuel Vargo worked as a full-time reporter and editor for more than 20 years at a number of daily newspapers and business journals. He was also an adjunct English professor at colleges and universities in Ohio, West Virginia, Mississippi (more...)

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