NAHATA DZIIL — On red-dirt pastureland on the southern edge of the Navajo Nation, El Pahi stands beside what looks like a child’s science experiment, but on a larger scale.
Six pill-shaped light-blue tanks are arranged beside what resembles a huge air-conditioner window unit and a silver cylindrical tank. A constant, high-pitched hum pierces the air as the wind blows across the range.
The contraption is a transfer station for a helium mining operation, one of a growing number in the remote region. The non-toxic gas exists in some of the highest concentrations in North America, and possibly the world, in pockets of the Navajo Nation and northeastern Arizona.
Helium is the universe’s second-most abundant element, but it’s in short supply on Earth, where imbalances in the market repeatedly cause global shortages. The non-combustible gas has historically been extracted as a byproduct of oil and natural gas, but private drilling companies are increasingly becoming interested in mining it on its own.
Beyond party balloons and blimps, helium has key uses in medical equipment like MRIs, semiconductors, and space technology. Physicists and academic researchers rely on helium for experiments.
But as companies have started drilling, local residents and environmentalists in this corner of the state have responded to the growing interest with alarm, concerned that hydraulic fracturing, colloquially known as “fracking,” is coming to Arizona and will potentially endanger freshwater aquifers and air quality.
Companies and industry experts say helium extraction is a much more benign process than the type of fracking used in oil and gas operations in states like Texas and Pennsylvania. Government agencies say they have sufficient regulations in place to prevent environmental degradation.
Muddled jurisdiction over surface and mineral rights, opaque communication with locals, and the proprietary nature of the oil and gas industry have further fed mistrust between communities and the agencies tasked with overseeing drilling companies. On the Navajo Nation, the long and deadly legacy of resource extraction by outsiders has made locals skeptical at best.
“There isn’t open communication, there isn’t transparency of, ‘This is exactly what’s going on, this is what we’re doing and how does that sound to you?’” said Robyn Jackson, a coordinator with the nonprofit environment group Diné C.A.R.E., which focuses on environmental justice issues on the Navajo Nation.
The helium industry isn’t new — drilling for the gas occurred in Arizona in the 1960s and ’70s — but the renewed interest is leaving tiny communities at the front lines with questions and government agencies trying to assure them of the protections in place.
Pahi, a retired engineer and rancher, gestured at a muddy stain on the ground.
“We don’t know what that is, what these chemicals are that they’re using,” he said. “I’m just frustrated with the government, both Navajo government and federal government. It seems like they don’t care about the people living here, their daily lives, their ways of life.”
Trouble at a remote operation
The Nahata Dziil Chapter of the Navajo Nation occupies 350,000 acres of ranchland, called New Lands. About 30 miles north of Petrified Forest National Park, away from the highway billboards advertising kachina dolls and other Native American arts, the landscape stretches into a flat endlessness, dotted by scrubs and the shade of an occasional mesquite tree.
The New Lands are managed by a federal agency called the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation (ONHIR), established after Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act in 1974, which, on its face, aimed to resolve historic land disputes between the two tribes. The act resulted in the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Navajo people to New Lands.
But the government didn’t purchase the mineral rights to the land, leaving it open for prospecting, something that rankles Pahi today.
A mile or so down a dirt road from the helium transfer station, a modest drilling well pokes out of the ground. It doesn’t look like a stereotypical oil and gas well. There’s no horsehead-bobbing pumpjack or thousand-foot-high fracking rig. It looks more like a simple plumbing system.
In 2019, a contractor with Dallas-based Ranger Development LLC drilled this well. During the process, workers left trash and construction materials at the site, Pahi said. He shared photos of the trash left at the site with The Arizona Republic.
The wellpad wasn’t fenced properly, allowing livestock to access a trench full of water used for drilling, Pahi said. They chewed on trash and materials left at the site. A rancher found a dead cow only a handful of yards from the well, foam dribbling from its mouth. Pahi came out and saw it himself. Another rancher had also found a cow near a well with a similar appearance. They suspect the animals drank contaminated water or ate something at the site, though they can’t prove it. One rancher was reimbursed by Ranger for the loss.
During the rest of the drilling process, Pahi kept his livestock off that pasture. He is one of 39 permittees who graze the 350,000-acre ranch as part of their Native American Beef Brand, a co-op of Navajo ranchers producing sustainable beef.
Pahi said he repeatedly tried to alert the chapter’s commissioners of the situation and complained to ONHIR with no results.
“There were a lot of plastic bottles, trash, plastic bags,” Pahi said. “We ended up cleaning that whole area. And that’s not our job. These people need to keep the environment clean.”
It wasn’t until Pahi happened to meet an enforcement officer with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency at a conference that the company was alerted to the issues. Ranger cleaned up the rest of the mess and added fencing two weeks later, said Anderson Harvey, who opened the investigation into Pahi’s complaints. The issue is still pending because COVID-19 soon after halted additional work, Harvey said.
“They were leaving all kinds of waste on site, some of the drilling area wasn’t fenced in,” Harvey said. “They stuck some T-posts in there and ran plastic garden fence around it, which is not the proper way of fencing. These cattle would roam right over it and unfortunately that’s what happened.”
A spokesperson for Ranger said the company adhered to its contracts with the local chapter leadership and ONHIR and that when it was alerted of the complaints, it responded in a timely manner. The company is not required to communicate directly with permittees.
“Ranger prides itself on being a respectful neighbor and partner to local tribes,” the spokesperson said in an email. “Any time the business was alerted to an issue — and there have been very few — Ranger has immediately and appropriately responded and remediated. There is no evidence of outstanding problems related to our work there.”
The water trenches are filled in and the trash is gone, but Pahi still has questions about some stains on the ground and a fluid that appears to be leaking out of the transfer station. An abandoned water truck still sits near a capped helium well on the pasture, the gas tank siphoned, seats covered in droppings and chewed up by wildlife.
Ranger is currently working with newly elected Nahata Dziil commissioners and ONHIR on a new contract to drill an additional nine wells, but the new leadership doesn’t plan to be supportive.
“We’re taking a position opposing this,” said recently elected Commissioner LaVonne Tsosie. “Mr. Pahi and the families out there, they’d been trying to ask the prior commissioners for help and they were just overlooked. We’re not going to stop fighting this.”
In Holbrook, worries about water
About 70 miles south of Nahata Dziil, along Interstate 40, sits Holbrook, the gateway to the Petrified Forest. Giant dinosaur sculptures and multicolored petrified wood yards line its main streets.
Across a bridge over the Little Colorado River, bulbous hill formations disappear into flat mesas. The striking hues that inspired Spanish explorers to name the area “El Desierto Pintado,” or “The Painted Desert,” fade into scrub, some farm fields and the occasional pond on the edge of the small town of Snowflake.
Kevin and Debbie Gibson had hoped to retire there quietly. They purchased land and started living off the grid about nine years ago, choosing the area because of its freshwater aquifers and plentiful sunshine. They wanted a place where they could ride their horses and grow their own food.
Others are there for the same reasons. People with chronic illness sought relief in a remote, unindustrialized place. Back-to-the-land environmentalists built self-sufficient Earth Ships. There are ranches too. Most rely on shallow water wells for their drinking water.
So when the Gibsons heard about helium drilling in the area, they were concerned. Kevin had worked as an engineer for oil companies throughout his career and he knew the potential for consequences.
“When my wife read an article that said the Bureau of Land Management was leasing for fracking some five miles to the north of us, I couldn’t quite keep silent,” he said. “My world’s at risk as well as other people’s.”
They learned the region they lived in held some of the richest helium deposits in the world. The Holbrook Basin, which also encompasses Nahata Dziil, is a geological area in northern Arizona that contains concentrations of helium gas as high as 8% to 10%, as compared to the industry benchmark of 0.3% to 1%.
Controversy erupted in September 2018, when the BLM auctioned off 3,000 acres near Petrified Forest National Park to a Canadian energy company called Desert Mountain Energy, which planned to drill for helium.
The Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based conservation group, sued soon after, saying the agency violated federal law by not conducting new environmental reviews or consulting with area tribes. The BLM had claimed a 1988 resource management plan satisfied its legal obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act. Last year, the leases were suspended as a result of the lawsuit.
But local concerns reached a fever pitch when residents learned the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality had issued an aquifer protection permit to Ranger Development in 2017, allowing the company to use “acid stimulation,” a form of hydraulic fracturing, on up to 80 helium wells in the Nahata Dziil area. Holbrook residents worried the company would drill closer to them next.
A handful of residents formed the group No Fracking AZ. The Gibsons joined. But when they realized the group didn’t want to get into politics, they formed their own: Protect Our Water AZ.
“I’m a mining engineer so I’m not anti-mining,” Gibson said. “But we have to think about what is the cost of taking out those resources, especially in the case of water in Arizona.”
How the geology figures in
The Coconino aquifer is a main water supply for rural cities and towns in the Holbrook Basin. Flagstaff also depends on the groundwater. The aquifer is already stretched thin by drought and overuse; adding the risk of contamination from drilling isn’t worth it, Kevin Gibson says. He and wife Debbie have met with U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., and former state Sen. Sylvia Allen, among others, to make their case.
Because it’s such an important water resource, the Coconino aquifer has been well-studied, said Steve Rauzi, a retired Arizona Geological Survey geologist who has authored much of the literature on oil and gas prospects in the Holbrook Basin and elsewhere in Arizona. The underground formations where helium has been found is primarily brackish water, he said.
“If you’re drilling for helium, you’re only going to the top of the Coconino,” Rauzi said. “It’s a legitimate concern, but I don’t think it’s that big of an impact on groundwater overall. As far as the depth they’re drilling, there’s nobody going to be worrying about the water down there. It’s highly saline to start with.”
Most water wells in the area are about 300 to 800feet deep, but the helium is located lower. Companies are generally not going deeper than 2,000 feet, though some permits specify depths up to 4,000 feet. The permits are publicly available on the Arizona Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s website.
“The simple answer is the helium companies are going below the zones where the locals are getting water, and they’re producing gas from zones that are not usable aquifers because there are so many dissolved solids in the water,” said Kurt Constenius, a geologist who works for a number of helium exploration companies, including Ranger, which is the only company actively producing the gas in the Holbrook Basin.
The sandstone makeup of much of the Little Colorado Plateau, which encompasses the Coconino aquifer, wouldn’t require the high level of pressure, volume and highly toxic drilling fluids used in shale gas formations in places like Texas, said Kristine Uhlman, a retired hydrogeologist who has worked extensively in Arizona and has worked with the University of Texas at Austin to study the impact of fracking on groundwater. At this point, most companies are using only air or water to drill.
The conflation between large-scale fracking and acid stimulation is simply inaccurate, Uhlman said.
“If there were to be any risk of any contamination of shallow aquifers, that would be if somebody crashes their truck and spills their gasoline or something,” she said.
Fracking in states like Texas uses millions of gallons of water and chemicals injected thousands of feet underground, then shunted for miles horizontally. It requires dozens of trucks and large drilling rigs. Studies have found that the process can hurt groundwater supplies and even cause earthquakes, though the oil and gas industry denies these links.
In contrast, acid stimulation uses significantly less fluid and is injected at much lower pressures and volumes, said Uhlman. Any remaining fluid is either neutralized by the geologic formation or flows back to the surface to be disposed of once the helium is extracted, she said.
The process is much shorter and smaller in scale. The drilling rig is usually mounted on a single truck, said Constenius.
“There’s overlaps with both methods in that you’re putting fluids down a hole and then there’s potential chemical reactions,” he said. “So, at the simplest, they’re very similar. But with hydraulic fracking, which is a real hot button issue, that’s a process, when compared to the Holbrook Basin, in both scale and method, that’s completely different.”
Helium itself is a non-combustible, non-toxic gas that forms deep in the mantle of the Earth from the decay of radioactive materials like uranium. In this region, it is found primarily with nitrogen, another non-toxic gas.
Most helium escapes the Earth into the atmosphere, but in certain places, like the Holbrook Basin, it gets trapped in salt domes or other geological formations, like a bubble leveling device. As a result, the drilling process would be similar to drilling a water well in most cases.
“Helium is coming up from the Earth’s interior all over the planet,” Uhlman said. “It’s coming up in your backyard. It’s coming out at the football field. It’s coming out everywhere at a steady basis. And the only reason you want to drill for it is if it’s been captured underneath a layer. This gas wants to move up and it doesn’t move horizontally, it just moves up and it makes a pool. You drop a conventional well into it and then you’ve got your helium.”
In other parts of the state, like the Four Corners region and less well-understood areas of the Coconino aquifer, the risk is different and dependent on the specific geological structures in which drilling is occurring, Rauzi said. In the case of acid stimulation, the most important thing is ensuring that companies are casing, or protectively lining, their wells properly, he said.
The chemical makeup of acids used for drilling is often proprietary, which furthers locals’ skepticism. Ranger declined to provide the specifics of the volume and type of acid it uses. A company working in the Four Corners region on the Navajo Nation, Tacitus LLC, has used nitrogen and a soap-like foam to stimulate converted oil wells for helium.
A spokesperson for Desert Mountain Energy, a Canadian company drilling in the area, said if the company does end up using acid to stimulate any of its wells, its first choice would be a citric acid, followed by hydrochloric acid, which is commonly used in swimming pools. So far, it has only used air to drill, she said.
Last year, Flagstaff filed a restraining order against the company to block drilling on leased state trust land that is within a mile and a half of Red Gap Ranch, which the city purchased to access the Coconino Aquifer and ensure its future groundwater supply.
The city declined to comment citing pending litigation.
“I think, truthfully, that acid stimulation is going to be used on a number of wells,” said Constenius. “The one well where the procedure was performed yielded excellent results. So it’s not just a one-off.”
Will that open the way for drilling deeper or searching for other resources? Constenius thinks not.
“As for potentially finding oil, it’s approaching zero chance that there would be oil found in the Holbrook Basin,” Constenius said. “Another way to say this is the major oil companies came through Arizona in the ’60s and drilled some wells and it was a graveyard. I think the notion that suddenly Arizona’s going to turn into west Texas is not going to happen.”
Are the regulations sufficient?
The Arizona Oil and Gas Conservation Commission regulates oil and gas extraction in the state. Companies must obtain a permit to drill, as well as permissions from governing agencies depending on if they are operating on private land, state trust land, the Navajo Nation or public land.
Companies must submit detailed plans to the commission outlining their well design and drilling and casing processes. During drilling, the commission requires companies to submit weekly to biweekly reports of their activities and will carry out inspections if there are complaints, said Frank Thorwald, the commission’s chairman.
With the steadily rising interest in helium, the state commission has worked with the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, which supports member states, to keep up-to-date regulations and best practices. The state wanted to make sure Arizona’s rules and regulations are in line with other states that have a similar level of production, Thorwald said.
As a result of that work, the state commission plans to send updates to the regulations to Gov. Doug Ducey for approval this summer. There were few changes outside of clarifying language, Thorwald said. The commission is also working to update its website to make permits and the permitting process more accessible to the public, he said.
The oil and gas commission does not require regular inspections on wells, but would inspect a site if a credible complaint is received, Thorwald said.
If a company plans to use acid stimulation, it is required to get an aquifer protection permit from ADEQ, a process that can take a year or more. The permit requires companies to outline how they will carry out the drilling, a financial statement for how they will close out drilling in the case of bankruptcy, hydrogeological studies on groundwater quality, and the specific technology the company will use to prevent discharge or spills, according to ADEQ spokesperson Caroline Oppleman.
Companies are also required to provide ADEQ with a list of the types and volumes of fluids that would be used to carry out acid stimulation, Oppleman said.
Once a permit is approved, the agency requires regular reports from the company and conducts inspections yearly, or more if there are complaints, Oppleman said.
“ADEQ does not anticipate adverse impacts to groundwater from well stimulation associated with helium gas extraction activities,” Oppleman wrote in response to emailed questions from The Republic. “Potential impacts to aquifers are unlikely due to the helium gas extraction well design, stimulation design and operation, and site specific geologic conditions, which all contribute to containing movement of injected fluids during stimulation.”
To locals like the Gibsons and others in their camp, the process feels like a fox guarding a henhouse.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, it will get diluted,’ but how many times have you said that about substances and found that just a couple molecules are dangerous to a human?” Gibson said. “If we were doing this in the middle of the desert with no water supply and no population, then I would say go for it. The bottom line here is, they’re doing this over the Coconino aquifer.”
Still, it’s unlikely there will be a sudden boom in production. There are fewer than a dozen companies with active drilling leases in the state, mostly small companies. Only Ranger Development and Texas-based Prize Energy have received aquifer protection permits from ADEQ. Ranger remains the only company actively producing helium in the state.
Interestremains steady. Texas-based oil giant Halliburton recently held meetings with the commission regarding helium. Kinder Morgan holds a large lease near St. Johns, where it had received an aquifer protection permit to carry out hydraulic fracturing to extract carbon dioxide. The field also likely contains helium. The company declined to respond to The Republic regarding its future plans.
Some companies appear to have less interest in actually extracting helium, but rather are attempting to capitalize on the buzz growing around Arizona’s rich helium deposits.
Rare Earth Exploration, a Texas-based company, received a drilling permit from the Oil and Gas Commission in April 2019. It also holds active leases with the Arizona State Land Department. In November of that year, a Texas State Securities Board commissioner filed an emergency order against the company for fraudulent claims to attract investors.
Among some industry experts, there have been whispers about other companies as well, but no legal action to date.
“The Holbrook Basin is like the Wild West,” Constenius said. “There’s some professional companies. And then there’s some disreputable companies, what I call promoters, where they’re actually kind of fleecing people on the hype of helium.”
A growing, fractured market
The U.S. helium market started to develop before World War II, when helium was discovered in Texas and Kansas. The government soon recognized the importance of the gas and established a federal reserve, providing taxpayer-funded incentives for oil and gas companies to extract helium that they happened to pull up with oil. The Federal Helium Reserve, located outside Amarillo, Texas, grew until 1973, when it became clear the amount of helium being supplied outpaced the demand.
As a result, in 1996, Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act, assigning the Bureau of Land Management to operate the reserve. The act required the agency to sell off the crude helium to private vendors and cease operations this year.
In part due to depletions in the reserve, by 2018, the U.S. was experiencing a helium shortage, causing helium prices to spike. The COVID-19 pandemic reduced the demand, but economists and companies say the closure of the federal helium reserve and declining production in fields in Kansas and Texas make discoveries in Arizona an alluring bet.
One thing is certain: The need for helium is not going away anytime soon. Some 30 percent of the helium used in the U.S. in 2019 was used for MRIs in medical settings. Analytical and laboratory applications accounted for 14%, and engineering and scientific applications 6%, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Most helium comes from the U.S. and Qatar. The U.S., which has historically consumed about 40 percent of the world’s helium, imports much of the gas from the small Middle Eastern country. Algeria, too, has a substantial supply.
Until the sell-off of the reserve, the U.S. was supplying about 30% to 40% of the world’s helium, but that’s fallen to about 15% to 20%. It imports the bulk of its helium largely from Qatar and Russia, said Jason Demers, the founder of helium company Tacitus LLC, which is operating in New Mexico on the Navajo Nation.
“I think it does leave the United States in a situation where they don’t want to be dependent on Russia and Qatar and Algeria,” Demers said.
Recent discoveries in Russia and Tanzania may change the market again. Companies see a strategic interest in the U.S. maintaining its own steady domestic supply, especially in a market that can shift dramatically overnight.
In 2017, for example, Saudi Arabia severed ties with Qatar, leading to the unintended side effect of Qatar shutting down its helium production, causing an immediate world helium shortage.
“There’s always been a high level of inconsistency in terms of the supply,” said Janie Chermak, an economics professor at the University of New Mexico who specializes in natural resources. “So if you had a ready supply and a consistent supply, it would stabilize prices, which means you probably wouldn’t see those spikes that you saw in the past and you wouldn’t see the shortages.”
When helium was controlled by the government, prices were in the $60 per thousand cubic foot range. Currently, the market demands between $200 and $400 dollars per thousand cubic foot, Demers said. That’s out of reach for many academic research institutions.
“There is no more $60 helium in the world,” Demers said. “And so helium has become a very, very expensive commodity for users who don’t have the resources to pay for it and so bringing on more domestic supply is something that we’ve been focusing on.”
Building infrastructure around the helium supply chain will be another piece of the puzzle, Chermak said.
“If helium can be produced at a price that makes it competitive with the sources that we have, and if it can be done in such a way that protects the environment, it has potential,” Chermak said. “Because the one thing I don’t see is demand for helium going away.”
Can helium be part of a transition?
Some believe the growing interest in helium in Arizona could lead to an economic boost for the Navajo Nation in particular, which is facing steep declines in revenue with the closure of coal plants.
“I really think that if there are the massive quantities that are theorized, then it could really have a larger political implication for the Navajo Nation,” said Carl Slater, Navajo Nation Council delegate who represents the Lukachukai, Rock Point, Round Rock, Tsaile-Wheatfields and Tsé Ch’ízhí chapters. He also serves as vice chair of the council’s Health, Education and Human Services Committee.
“If you compare an energy resource that’s contributing to climate change, to a resource that’s used in medical technology, cooling MRI machines, producing semiconductors, all sorts of things that aren’t necessarily just adding to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, then it ends up having a different net effect,” Slater said. “The important thing is make sure it’s not damaging to our people’s environment and homelands so that we can continue to live at home in our traditional way.”
Slater worked closely with his constituents and the helium company Tacitus LLC to develop what he believes is a fair deal for drilling. Among other things, the legislation he authored establishes royalties and payments for a percentage of the company’s profit to the tribe and the local community. It also establishes a community reinvestment fund. The legislation was stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My thought process was, let’s start having this conversation now because there’s a bunch of production that’s coming online soon and if we don’t have the conversation now, then we’re going to feel backed into a corner to enter it later, probably under worse conditions,” Slater said. “And, you know, we need to start building the fluency as leadership to discuss this resource, what we’d like to do with it.”
While he would prefer no resource extraction on the Navajo Nation at all, he believes investing in helium could give the tribe more political influence. But at each stage of negotiations, the costs and benefits need to be carefully weighed, he said.
“In general, the history of resource extraction on Navajo is pretty horrible, so if you start with that premise, you should be very wary of any sort of extraction,” Slater said. “That said, as a leader, I’m looking at revenues coming in that are like two-thirds to half of what was sustaining our government for the past 10 years or so.”
He said a balance between helium extraction and Navajo way of life can be achieved if communication is above board and the council addresses the issues in a strategic manner early on. Fair payments to the Nation and investments in the local community where drilling is occurring is essential, he said.
“I’ve tried to have the middle ground be tilted in favor toward the Navajo Nation and its citizens,” Slater said. “We need to start having the conversation, because if it just happens in the shadows, then we get really bad deals, we get really poor decision making, there isn’t the accountability that should be there.”
He believes the agreement with Tacitus can serve as an example for how to properly manage helium extraction on the Navajo Nation. That company has been drilling in the community of Little Water near Sanostee, New Mexico, since 2018. Before drilling began, the company prioritized communicating with the community, outside of the required approvals from local chapter government, the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources and the council.
So far, Tacitus has paid the Nation more than half a million dollars, most of it over the past 12 months, when the project became commercial, Demers said.
The company has also paid more than $100,000 in investments to the Little Water community, including constructing and maintaining roads, building livestock water sources, fixing a water windmill and providing a backhoe to help the community bury those who died from COVID-19.
“I believe it’s about communicating. You tend to feel more comfortable with what your neighbor is building in his backyard if he talks to you about it than if he’s doing it in the darkness of night,” Demers said. “That’s an investment to make, setting up these town halls and meeting with people and showing them what you’re doing. And you can either do that upfront and save yourself a lot of grief or you can spend a lot of money on the back end fighting.”
Tacitus is currently selling about a million and a half cubic feet of helium per month to a domestic buyer, Demers said.
“I truly believe the Navajo Nation is going to be a key player in the energy transition for the United States in helium,” Demers said. “America is in a position that there needs to be additional domestic supply in order to get to a point of being balanced and self-sufficient. And so in bringing that in for a landing, this is where the Navajo Nation is sitting in a position to develop enough helium resources to help manage the U.S. supply shortage.”
Erin Stone wrote about the environment for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Reach her on Twitter @Erstone7.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.