Every day for 35 years, 3.3 million gallons of pure groundwater were pumped from the Navajo aquifer, which flows beneath the Hopi and Navajo nations in northeastern Arizona. Peabody Western Coal Co. used the water to transport coal via a long-distance pipeline from a strip mine on Black Mesa — a region containing the largest coal deposit in the United States — to a power plant in the Mojave Desert, 273 miles to the west. Vernon Masayesva, founder of the Black Mesa Trust, followed the example of Hopi traditional leaders of the 1970s and ’80s and fought hard against the slurry line. He told the L.A. Times in 2004, “As Hopis, we have a sacred covenant with the person that was here a long time before our ancestors arrived… This person told us it will be hard to be a farmer in a waterless world, no forests, no flowing water or lakes. To survive here you have to have a very strong spiritual life. But if you take care of this land and use its resources in the best possible way, you will be here a long time.” Hopi spiritual leaders won a rare victory when, on the last day of 2005, the Mohave Generating Station powered down, forcing the closure of the coal mine and its slurry line. But the drive to sacrifice pristine desert groundwater for cheap energy has not disappeared, and the Hopi have continued to fight against the mine’s reopening and the expansion of other mining operations in the region.
The Land and Its People
Hopi clans came to rest along the southern rim of Black Mesa over a thousand years ago. To this day, intricate ceremonies call rain to thirsty corn plants, and each Hopi village still bears the name of the spring that sustains it. In the 1960s, both the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribal Council signed mineral exploration agreements with Peabody Coal Co. Both tribal governments felt compelled to enter into lease agreements in pursuit of economic development that would benefit their people.
Documents now prove that the Hopi Tribe’s attorney, John Boyden, was secretly working for Peabody Coal Company at the same time that he was negotiating the coal lease. Boyden advised the Hopis to approve the pumping of groundwater to transport coal, and the lease was approved by the Department of Interior, which holds tribal lands in trust. The Interior Department included an “escape clause” in the lease that requires the Secretary of the Interior to force Peabody to find another way to move the coal if the slurry line has an adverse effect on the Navajo aquifer. Despite scientific evidence of damage to Hopi springs, the slurry line operated unhindered until environmental groups forced the closure of the Mohave Generating Station due to sulphur dioxide pollution of the skies around the Grand Canyon.
Threats and Preservation Efforts
Water is physically precious and spiritually significant to the native people in the desert regions of the Southwest. A Hopi individual on average uses 10,000 gallons of water per year — many do not have running water in their homes and must haul in water to sustain their families, livestock and crops — while the Peabody slurry consumed 1.3 billion gallons in a year. Peabody also constructed 222 impoundment ponds holding more than 4,400 acre feet of water, another 1.4 billion gallons of water not flowing into local washes or percolating into springs.
The water Peabody pumped from the Navajo aquifer depleted the most significant water source in the region. Underground water flows into natural subterranean storage areas and collects, coming out years later in the washes and springs. By 2005, seven local springs and several wells were down by approximately 30 percent. Yet, as in other areas, tribal governments were caught between trying to preserve the quality of their land and trying to provide for their people’s economic health. Peabody’s mines provided jobs and injected $2 million into the Navajo and Hopi communities every week, according to the company.
However, on Dec. 31, 2005, the owners of the Mojave Generating Station shut the plant down. That decision was the result of resolutions passed by the Navajo and Hopi tribes ending Peabody’s use of the aquifer, along with a 1997 Clean Air Act lawsuit demanding that the plant be retrofitted with state-of-the-art pollution controls or close by the end of 2005. Because the Mojave Generating Station was Black Mesa mine’s sole customer and because Peabody had no alternative source of water, Peabody decided to close down the mine and, with it, the slurry line.
But the push for cheap ways to transport coal did not end. In 2006, the Office of Surface Mining issued a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) that recommended Peabody Energy reopen the Black Mesa mine, and with it the destructive coal slurry line. Peabody sought to tap into the Coconino Aquifer (south of Black Mesa, between Flagstaff and Winslow) while increasing the amount of water pumped from the Navajo aquifer by 33 percent compared to the previous rate. In addition to this expansion, Peabody also sought a life-of-mine permit from the Bush administration.
Although initially squelched by an outpouring of public comment, the draft EIS was reactivated in 2008, with some changes: the Black Mesa mine would provide coal to the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz., and its permit merged with the life-of-mine permit of the Kayenta mine, to the south. Later that year, the outgoing Bush administration approved the life-of-mine permit, allowing Peabody to operate at Black Mesa and Kayenta mines until there is no coal left.
Native activists and environmental groups filed a legal challenge to that permit decision, and in January 2010, a federal judge ordered the permit vacated and “remanded to the Office of Surface Mining for further action.” Judge Robert G. Holt said the OSM violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to prepare a supplemental draft EIS when Peabody altered its proposed plans. “A great new day is dawning for the Hopi and all Native peoples in this country,” Masayesva said in response to the news.
Other stripmines in the area continue to operate, however. The nearby Kayenta mine was called one of the most dangerous mines in the country in 2010 by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and was targeted for increased scrutiny. In 2013, Peabody proposed increasing a $3 million annual lease fee to $42 million in exchange for a 25-year deal as compared to the previous 10-year deal. The Navajo Nation Tribal Council approved the renewal with a number of conditions, such as better regulation of toxics and Navajo hiring preferences.
Peabody should be required to pay for the damage caused to the land and the aquifers before it can begin new projects. Methods for monitoring water reduction must be improved. Funding is desperately needed to invest in alternative energy development, such as wind and solar, on the Hopi and Navajo reservations to replace the jobs and revenue lost with the closure of the Black Mesa Mine. The proposals of the Just Transition coalition should be implemented. Transitioning the Mohave Generating Station to a solar thermal plant is a potentially feasible solution that would model clean energy production in a culturally sacred and fragile environment.
What You Can Do
Check out the Just Transition website.
Keep the pressure on the Department of the Interior to find a permanent solution to coal mining and transport in the Black Mesa area.Secretary Sally Jewell
U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington DC 20240
Visit the Black Mesa Indigenous Support website for more ideas on how to take action.
Black Mesa Trust. “Peabody Coal’s Permit for Black Mesa Mining Complex Rejected.” News release, January 18, 2010.
Black Mesa Trust (co-author). “Water is Life – Protect Water Now!” Indigenous Declaration on Water, July 8, 2001.
Broder, John M. “Forces Clash on Tribal Lands.” New York Times, January 1, 2006. (PDF)
Bustillo, Miguel. “Edison to Shut Down Polluting Coal Plant.” Los Angles Times, December 30, 2005. (PDF)
Dougherty, John. “Dark Days on Black Mesa.” Phoenix New Times, April 24, 1997.
Dougherty, John.“A People Betrayed — John Boyden’s Legacy.” Phoenix New Times, May 1, 1997.
Lesle, Timothy. “Making a Just Transition.” The Planet Newsletter (Sierra Club), May 2006.
Masayesva, Vernon. “Closing Power Plant Is First Step Read in New Era of Energy.” Arizona Republic, November 3, 2005. (PDF)
Michaels, Marguerite. “Indians vs. Miners.” Time, November 5, 2001.
Natural Resources Defense Council. Drawdown: An Update to Groundwater Mining on Black Mesa. 2006.
Peabody Energy. “Peabody Releases Latest Black Mesa Aquifer Study; Confirms Prior Studies Showing No Signficant Harm.” News release, March 2001.
Reilly, Sean Patrick. “Gathering Clouds.” Los Angeles Times, June 6, 2004.
Selestewa, Leonard. “Central Arizona Project: Robbing Black Mesa to Fuel Phoenix.” Navajo-Hopi Observer, August, 2001.
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Report by: Amy Corbin
Posted on: September 1, 2001
Updated on: September 11, 2014
Country: United States