Benally chases off officials
Navajo Environmental Protection Agency tried to conduct environmental inspections on San Juan Farm Board President Dineh Benally’s hemp greenhouses early Wednesday morning but were met with contempt and intimidation by the former Navajo presidential and vice presidential candidate and his farmers.
Oliver Whaley, executive director of NEPA, took his staff to inspect the greenhouses and farms that residents have been complaining about and reporting on for weeks.
NEPA officials, along with Navajo Police and Fish and Wildlife officers, were only able to inspect one farm located across from Shiprock High School before they were told to leave. “We initially had consent to come on and search,” said Whaley, who said David Jordan, a Gallup based attorney who is representing Benally, was also at the inspection.
“We wanted to avoid any conflict,” Whaley said. “You could tell from the very beginning it was going to be like pulling teeth, but it got to the point to where there was confrontation and they told us to leave.”
Whaley said the route they will now take is to work with the Nation’s Prosecutor’s Office and Department of Justice to get search warrants to inspect Benally’s operation. He also said they will push for the assistance of the U.S. EPA. “They were aggressive, uncooperative and told us to leave,” said Whaley about Benally and his staff. “They berated my staff. They think we can’t do anything. We can and we will.It will just take a little bit longer to go through the proper steps.”
During a July 28 San Juan River Farm Board meeting, Benally said farms on the Navajo Nation are not tribal entities rather belong to individual farmers who can plant whatever they wish.
“This current administration is telling the people that these farms belong to Navajo Nation,” said Benally during the July meeting. “That is not true and that is what will go before the court. “As your farm board president,” he said, “as your government tribal official, I believe these farms belong to the individual Navajo. It does not belong to the Navajo president. These lands belong to the individual farmers, they don’t belong to the chapter, it doesn’t belong to Window Rock.
“That’s the reason why what we are dealing with is going to litigation,” he said. “They are finding out the farmers are waking up.”
Initially, NEPA received reports from residents that Benally’s hemp workers were discharging sewage into the San Juan River. NEPA began looking into it. Although NEPA’s Water Quality department did not find sewage in the river, they found other concerning issues regarding the mobile homes workers have moved onto farms and other parts of the land, which goes against the home-site lease process.
NEPA also found violations regarding the hemp greenhouses. “We found they installed septic tanks without any regard to our domestic wastewater regulations,” said Whaley in a previous interview with the Times, a clear violation of the Clean Water Act. “They didn’t get any permits or anything like that,” he said. “It didn’t appear they were using them to hold sewage but for showers, hand-washing water. But it still has to be put in place properly and still has to be pumped out and disposed of properly.”
Then there are the generators running fans in the greenhouses, which can be found in Shiprock, Gadiihai, Hogback and other communities. There is also the matter of large gas storage tanks to feed the generators.
After signing the five-acre expansion into law for New Mexico State University’s hemp research pilot program at Navajo Agricultural Products Industry in May, President Jonathan Nez said growth, cultivation and marketing of industrial hemp is unauthorized and can place farm permits in jeopardy when grown outside of the pilot project.
“With all these different farms and who is responsible for them, I think the fact that he (Benally) held himself out there, by having his attorney there … he is responsible for these farms, for every issue,” said Whaley. “As well as the land-use holders. I don’t think he legally has the right to be there. He doesn’t have land-use permits or anything.”
The Navajo Area BIA has reported there are estimated 400 acres of hemp production. There are four plots that require probate. One of these plots belongs to Benally, and this plot doesn’t have a land-use permit, and another farm plot doesn’t have an agriculture land-use permit.
In Hogback at least seven plots are producing hemp, as well as hoop houses. Gadiiahi Chapter has a couple of hoop houses and within this chapter there are spots that have been identified for hemp production. San Juan Chapter has two plots, according to photos taken by BIA, which have shown truck action.
“The hemp operation is the most active in the Shiprock area,” said the BIA’s Calvin Curley during last week’s Resource and Development Committee meeting. “There is a total of 10 plots growing hemp,” Curley said. “There is also a hemp production building in the Shiprock area.”
Curley also raised the issue of water being diverted from the San Juan River, which Navajo Nation Water Resources Management Director Jason John has brought to their attention. Whaley said he has met with NAPI and NMSU, who noted they are ready to harvest their hemp crops because it is getting colder.
This has been a worry for residents who believe that once Benally and his non-Navajo farmers harvest the hemp, they will leave and get away with the destruction they created. “It was apparent they did not want to give information,” said Whaley. “From what we did see they are in violation of environmental regulation and that’s become a big concern from us.”
So far, Benally and his supporters have taken to the radio to speak out ruthlessly and mockingly against his critics and residents who have held protests against him and his non-Navajo farmers. Since this matter is still under litigation, the Navajo Nation Council has refrained from speaking on the subject, but it may be up to the community to voice their opposition and concerns especially to their local leaders
“I think the Shiprock community needs to get a lot more loud and vocal with their local leadership and Council delegates,” said Whaley. Both Benally and Jordan did not respond to questions or give a comment.