Mobil officials have denied charges the company discriminates against Navajo workers and contractors, saying problems that caused a Dec. 2 explosion at McElmo oil well have been corrected.
Meanwhile, local protesters vowed to keep fighting the oil giant and criticized the central tribal government for standing on the sidelines during the controversy.Discussion continued Friday between company officials, Navajo tribal government leaders and a group of protesters who have demanded Mobil and other oil companies in the area shut down operations.
Mobil spokesperson Beth Ann Rust said 87 percent of the facilities' employees are Navajo. Another company official later added only one of three supervisors at the plant is a tribal member. Employees still operated the oil well on Friday, though Mobil said it would cease operations if the tribe so desired.
Rust said she didn't know how long a shutdown of the facility would take but added it would be a complicated process. The Dec. 2 explosion at the oil well was caused when a flow line became blocked, causing natural gas to leak into a building through a drain system. A pilot light or other flame in the building then ignited the gas. A small fire resulted, but no one was injured.
The McElmo facility includes oil wells that produce about 12,000 barrels of petroleum per day and an injection plant that returns natural gas underground.
The facility is located about 280 miles southeast of Salt Lake City and roughly 30 miles southeast of Blanding.
Lemuel Chee, a member of the group involved in the protests, said local tribal members don't believe Mobil's claims that closing the well would be a difficult procedure, because there are emergency systems in place to shut down the facility in the case of fire. Not only do some tribal members believe the company is stonewalling, many feel the tribal government is not supporting them.
"The only thing they see is revenue," Chee said. "They only have dollar signs in their eyes."
The central tribal government, located in Window Rock, Ariz., did not respond to questions concerning community anger over its actions thus far in the Aneth controversy.
In a press release, Navajo President Albert Hale said he has dispatched a "task force" to the area to mediate the situation, but Chee said he knew of only two tribal officials who are attending negotiations.
"I wish they would come down here and see what's going on," he said.
Hale's press release seemed to indicate the president plans to walk a fine line between community concerns and the Mobil's probable desire to keep the plant open.
"We are undertaking the task of assisting in negotiations that will protect the rights of local people while also recognizing legitimate leases granted by the Navajo Nation years ago to develop our oil resources," Hale said.
Chee said as many as 75 people participated in Friday's protest, which he said would continue. In addition to concerns about plant safety and discrimination, some local residents don't feel the Aneth area adequately shares in revenue produced by area oil wells.
Protesters have also demanded the Navajo Nation renegotiate its leases with Mobil to include provisions requiring the company maintain a workforce that is 95 percent Navajo in five years.
A resolution approved by the Aneth Chapter government called for reclamation and reseeding of damaged areas, a reduction of the company's lease period to 10 years and clauses that prohibit workers from bringing alcohol, drugs or firearms onto reservation lands.