Draining the life from the land

Mining and indigenous people


“Every time we take a breath,” says former Hopi Tribal Chairman Ferrell Secakuku, “another 50 gallons of water are gone.”

As Peabody Western Coal Co. pumps three million gallons of pure drinking water a day from beneath Black Mesa, Hopi and Diné (Navajo) residents are watching the ancient springs and washes that have sustained their way of life for centuries dry up. Peabody has been sucking the life out of Black Mesa for over 30 years, and with the Bush/Cheney Energy Plan’s emphasis on fossil fuel extraction, Native communities are facing new threats to their water supplies and environmental integrity by the coal industry.

In a challenge to this renewed corporate threat, a group of Hopi and Diné runners gathered April 21 on the San Francisco Peaks outside Flagstaff, Arizona, where Ferrell Secakuku performed a traditional prayer ceremony to commence a 200-mile run to Window Rock, Navajo Nation. The prayer run, organized by the Black Mesa Water Coalition (BMWC), with the help of runners Bucky Preston (Hopi) and Cardenas Redsteer (Diné/Chiricahua Apache), was designed to send the message to the Hopi and Navajo Councils, as well as the government and energy corporations, that the wasteful use of their drinking water for industrial purposes must cease. The run was also intended to restore bridges between the elders and youth, and to unite the Diné and Hopi communities behind this vital issue.

“We are asking that Hopi and Navajo work together and put aside their harsh words and politics,” says Diné Enei Begay of the BMWC.

Peabody - whose parent company, Peabody Energy, is the largest coal company in the world - has attempted to divide the Hopi and Diné since it brokered its secret deals with the tribal councils in the mid-1960s. It is not surprising that the leases stressed corporate profit, not environmental or cultural protection, since it was later revealed that the Hopi’s lawyer, John Boyden, was also working for Peabody.

Government agencies partitioned and fenced the land, impounded Diné livestock and evicted thousands of families. The breach created between Hopi and Diné has benefited only one sector - the corporations seeking more energy leases on Native land.

Slurrying coal to Nevada
As documented by the Black Mesa Recovery Campaign, Peabody applied for a “life of mine” permit for its Black Mesa Mine to the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) in January 2002, which if approved, would allow it to strip the previously untouched region of Hopi land known as J23, as well as increase their pumping of the N-aquifer by 32 percent.
Most of the water taken from the N-aquifer is used to mix coal into slurry and pump it 273 miles to the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada. A Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report has gathered data from the OSM, the US Geological Survey, Peabody and a private firm, concluding that “since Peabody began using N-aquifer water for its coal slurry operations, pumping an average of 4,000 acre feet - more than 1.3 billion gallons - each year, water levels have decreased by more than 100 feet in some wells and discharge has slackened by more than 50 percent in the majority of monitored springs.”

Since many of the region’s other aquifers are contaminated with uranium or coal, the N-aquifer remains the primary source of water for drinking, subsistence farming and sacred religious practices. Activists feel the Department of Interior (DOI) should uphold a clause in the original leases that requires Peabody to find an alternate source of water if the tribes’ supply is endangered.

While Peabody claims to use only a small fraction of the aquifer’s water and blames any negative impact on increased municipal use and drought, the corporation sucks up almost three times the amount used by the two Indian nations combined. Most Hopi, for example, must haul their daily rations by hand, and therefore use water sparingly.
“We feel strongly that Peabody is threatening the culture of our people,” says Hopi Lillian Hill of the BMWC.

Local residents also fear that a Peabody expansion would bring more air pollution, respiratory problems and the destruction of burial sites and medicinal plants. While those who live in close proximity to the Black Mesa Mine feel they bear only the negative effects of coal extraction, the Navajo and Hopi governments depend heavily on royalties from Peabody. For this reason, activists are not calling for the closure of the mine.
But they are urging the tribal councils to look at more sustainable forms of energy production, like solar and wind-generated power, to loosen the grip of the outside, corporate influences on the two Native nations.

“We need to stop financing the dominant society with resources from here,” says Diné Roberto Nutlouis of the Indigenous Youth Coalition, and “to develop in a way that is sensitive to the culture of our people.”

English only
The lack of sensitivity for the Native cultures was demonstrated when Peabody placed the required announcements of its “life of mine” application in local newspapers. Both Peabody and the OSM have been criticized for printing the ads only in technical, legal English, which many Hopi and Diné don’t understand. The 30-day comment period following the last notice took place concurrently with Hopi prayer ceremonies, which strictly limited Hopi participation. Rick Holbrook of OSM claims Peabody fulfilled the legal requirements, and that the “OSM can’t hold them to anything more than is required.” Holbrook says the OSM has determined that the permit will require an Environmental Impact Statement, a two-year process that will allow for continued public input.

Activists are calling for Peabody to stop its pumping of the N-aquifer no later than 2005. The company has considered building a pipeline from either Lake Powell or the Fort McDowell Reservation near Phoenix, where it has acquired water rights, but neither option will eliminate the waste caused by the archaic slurry line, the last one in the US. Activists have proposed that Peabody consider using reclaimed wastewater, or shipping their coal by truck or rail - the common but more costly method.

The slurry line may shut down regardless of Peabody’s wishes. The Mohave Generating Station is legally required to make a commitment by 2003 to install pollution-control scrubbers, and its owners are considering switching to natural gas, which would eliminate Peabody’s buyer of Black Mesa coal.

Peabody might have gained a new customer as Reliant Resources of Houston entered the scene, with promises of jobs, revenue, and a long-term solution to the water needs of the Hopi. But at the end of May, the Hopi Tribal Council cancelled its agreement with Reliant, citing the corporation’s “internal troubles.” Reliant Resources’ parent company, Reliant Energy, is one of the power companies being sued by the State of California for price-gouging and “over-scheduling” during 2001’s power shortages. Reliant’s CEO Steve Letbetter has been documented by the NRDC to have raised $200,000 for George Bush’s campaign and inaugural committee; the Sierra Club points out that Bush’s hands-off stance toward the California energy crisis has enriched Reliant and other Houston-based energy corporations.

The Hopi Tribal Council is currently undecided as to whether it will pursue a similar project with another company, but opponents feel that other alternatives must be considered.

“This issue provides the opportunity for the Chairman to call a summit of Hopi people to talk about a sustainable economy for the tribe,” says Vernon Masayesva, Executive director of Black Mesa Trust.

Many Hopi say they were ignored during Reliant’s initial consultations with their Tribal Council, and are opposed to the invasion of another corporation that will continue to devour their water and coal and funnel the energy to air conditioners and microwaves in Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.

The lake of tears
Strip mines in desert areas are difficult and costly to reclaim, so their scars are often left unhealed as they are abandoned by the government as “National Sacrifice Areas.”

The Zuni people have seen the homelands of numerous First Nations in the Four Corners region sacrificed for coal, uranium and profit. So as the Phoenix-based Salt River Project (SRP) threatens the Zuni Salt Lake with plans of a coal strip mine, a strong opposition has solidified into the Zuni Salt Lake Coalition - composed of the Zuni Pueblo, Center for Biological Diversity, Citizen’s Coal Council, Water Information Network and Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice Program.

For thousands of years, the Zuni, Laguna, Acoma, Diné, Apache and other tribes have journeyed to western New Mexico to collect salt from the lake for domestic and ceremonial use, and to make sacred offerings to the deity Salt Mother. The different nations could gather without fear of conflict, since the lake was respected as a traditional neutral zone.

SRP’s Fence Lake Coal Mine would operate on 18,000 acres, approximately 10 miles northeast of the Zuni Salt Lake. The Coalition, citing hydrological studies conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and a private firm, is convinced that the mine’s pumping of a nearby aquifer will lower the level of the lake. They are also worried that mining and the construction of a railroad to ship the coal to SRP’s Coronado Generating Station in Arizona will destroy burial sites, ancient trails and the habitat of antelope and golden eagles in areas that are Traditional Cultural Properties.

The mine’s state permit was recently renewed for another five years by the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division (MMD). The DOI issued a Federal permit on May 31, which will enable SRP to begin excavating coal by 2005, before the supply from its mine near Gallup disappears.

Brian Segee of the Center for Biological Diversity says his organization is calling for a new supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, and is appealing the state permit. The Zuni coalition will also litigate federal approval, since as Segee says, if “this mine goes in, there will be immediate proposals for expansion and other mines.”

Jim O’Hara of the MMD says it is stipulated in the permit that if the water level of the lake is affected, then SRP must cease pumping the aquifer, but Segee argues that the BIA has declared that the system of monitoring being used is faulty, and the baseline data skewed. SRP claims to have consulted with the Zuni, and that the project will bring them jobs and benefits, but Zuni Coalition member Cal Seciwa writes that the approval of SRP’s permit is “all for the sake of revenue for state and local counties around the development site,” and that “very few benefits will materialize for our Native people and communities.”

SRP, a co-owner of the smoke-belching Mohave Generating Station, claims that “you can buy clean, green energy from SRP.”

But if SRP “is being as ‘Earthwise’ as they claim,” states Andy Bessler of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice Program, “they will drop plans for the Fence Lake Coal Mine and look to energy from wind and solar, not dirty coal.”

In several Native religions of the Four Corners, it is the Kachinas that bring rain to the land. Without it, crops wither and livestock dies. In the Desert Southwest, it has been one of the driest years in history, sending a message to people that sacrificing water to obtain coal-produced energy will not only affect the lives of the Hopi, Diné, Zuni and other Native peoples - but will unbalance the entire ecosystem.“We truly believe that water is life,” says Bucky Preston. And all life needs water.

For further information and more numbers, contact: Andy Bessler; Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice Program; P0 Box 38, Flagstaff, AZ 86002-0038; (928)774-6103.

Brad Miller is a freelance journalist currently working out of the Desert Southwest somewhere between the Navajo Nation and the Mexican border.

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