Black Mesa mine mess


A controversial clean water permit for a coal mine complex sited at a Navajo and Hopi sacred mountain is once again up for review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Peabody Western Coal Company seeks a renewal of its water quality permit for the Black Mesa/ Kayenta Mine Complex, despite the mine's impact on water quality and local public health over several decades because of discharges of toxic heavy metals and pollutants into the water supply. EPA invites the public to submit comments through April 30th on the previously-withdrawn National Pollution Discharge Elimination System Permit pursuant to the Clean Water Act, which requires that all industrial dischargers of wastewater obtain and maintain a permit.

EPA granted the contested polllution permit in August 2009 and then withdrew it in early December 2009, after an appeal from a coalition of environmental and indigenous groups cited the mine's numerous and egregious violations of the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental statutes. Appellants asserted that in granting the permit, EPA failed to adequately analyze the environmental impacts of leaking waste ponds, properly account for the discharge of heavy metals and pollutants into the water sources for nearby communities as well as the concomitant acidification of water and soil, or provide local residents with meaningful opportunities for public participation.

EPA claims the proposed new permit will compel the mine to uphold water quality standards, by establishing runoff limits pursuant to the Clean Water Act. The agency also says the permit will set forth new requirements for reclaimed mine areas, and will allow for increased management of sediment and seepage from stormwater treatment ponds. The Black Mesa Mine continues to operate under its prior permit -- issued in 2000 -- to this day.

After the December 2009 withdrawal of the new permit, Wahleah Johns of the Black Mesa Water Coalition said that "our community was shut out of the permitting process and our requests for public hearings on the permit denied. If a new permit is issued, the agency must ensure that impacted communities are meaningfully involved in environmental decision-making." In response to the community's contention that EPA failed to adequately ensure public participation, EPA held two public hearings about the permit on Navajo and Hopi lands this February.

Groups like Black Mesa Water Coalition and their allies have worked for years to protect the Navajo Nation's water from misappropriation by Peabody, whose operations have drained billions of gallons of clean, drinkable groundwater from the Navajo Aquifer beneath the mine in order to "slurry" (move) coal to affiliated power plants. Peabody's pumping operation substantially diminished the most important source of water in the region -- in 2006, three of four continually-monitored gauging stations showed a decline of at least 50% from normal levels of water discharge.

While the Mojave Generating Station, the primary recipient of slurried coal, was shut down in 2005 due to the sustained efforts of grassroots leaders, the continued operation of the mine persists in threatening water quality and the health of humans and the biotic community. It is incumbent upon concerned citizens to meet the public participation mandate set forth by affected communities, and to ensure that any permit granted by EPA for pollution discharges at the Black Mesa Mine Complex meets maximum standards for water quality and safety.

Caitlin Sislin, Esq. is the Advocacy Director for Women's Earth Alliance, where she coordinates the Sacred Earth Advocacy Network -- a network of pro bono legal and policy advocates in collaboration with indigenous women environmental justice leaders.  For more information about participating in the Advocacy Network as a pro bono advocate, or our three 2010 Advocacy Delegations, please contact Caitlin at [email protected]

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