Is a coal mine pumping the Hopi dry?

Thirty-six years later, tribe rethinks a money-making agreement

  • Locator map for Black Mesa Mine

    Diane Sylvain
 

MOENKOPI, Ariz. - Leonard Selestewa stands on the shoulder of Highway 264, overlooking his village of Lower Moenkopi on the westernmost fringe of the Hopi Reservation. Small farm plots, divided by irrigation ditches, spill out beneath clusters of stone houses.

In the summer, Lower Moenkopi and other Hopi villages are tiny islands of green in the midst of a parched landscape of rocky mesas and dry desert washes in northeastern Arizona. The 12 villages - two of which are considered to be the longest continuously inhabited communities on the continent, dating back to 1100 - have been dependent for centuries on springs that emanate from the southernmost fingers of Black Mesa. Those springs are fed by the Navajo Aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for the 9,000 Hopi who live on the reservation.

Although numerous wells have been drilled into the aquifer for household water and plumbing, the springs themselves remain essential components of the Hopi religion and ceremonial cycle. "They are said to be the channels by which the spirits of the kachinas travel," explains Selestewa. When he was young, he says, the village's two sacred springs each gave pristine water at 35 gallons per minute.

"Growing up, I thought this water would never go away," he says. "Now, both combined, they're probably less than 15 gallons per minute. We're seeing the first signs of total drawdown."

Selestewa believes the cause of the drawdown is Peabody Western Coal Co., a subsidiary of Peabody Energy. Peabody operates one of the country's largest coal strip mines on Black Mesa, 60 miles northeast of the village. The mine straddles the Hopi and Navajo reservations. Every year, Peabody pumps 1.3 billion gallons of Ice Age groundwater out of the aquifer, mixes it 50/50 with crushed coal into a thick, chocolaty slurry, and pumps it 273 miles to Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev., which powers air conditioners from Phoenix to Las Vegas to Los Angeles. It is the only such slurry line in the country.

As concern over disappearing springs and dry washes mounts, an upcoming mining lease renewal and a looming pollution-control deadline could bring both Black Mesa Mine and Mohave Generating Station to a halt. But while that might guarantee the preservation of Hopi water and religion, it would threaten the tribe's economic survival; more than 80 percent of tribal revenue comes from coal royalties. According to Peabody spokeswoman Beth Sutton, the company pays a combined $45 million a year in royalties to the two tribes.

Dueling science

The original strip-mining leases the Hopi and Navajo tribal governments signed in 1966 have been a source of controversy from the beginning. Hopi spiritual leaders actually sued their own council, claiming it lacked the authority to negotiate mineral leases for the Hopi people. John Boyden, the Hopi Tribe's lawyer (who, it was later discovered, also worked for Peabody), agreed to sell Navajo Aquifer water to supply the slurry for a mere $1.67 per acre-foot.

In the 1990s, Hopi people first began to take note of slackening springs and washes (HCN, 4/18/94: Coal firm may pull its straw out of aquifer). The Navajo Nation government has largely stayed on the sidelines of the issue; with a reservation that borders on the San Juan River and Lake Powell, the Navajo are far less dependent on groundwater. But grassroots pressure from both tribes, an ultimatum from the Hopi tribal chairman, and environmental deadlines at the Mohave power plant are quickly bringing the issue to a head.

Mohave is under court order to install pollution-control scrubbers to reduce smog over the Grand Canyon; it must issue a binding contract to purchase the equipment no later than September of 2003. But Peabody's mining lease with the Hopi Tribe expires in 2005, and Hopi Chairman Wayne Taylor has said he will not sign a new lease unless an alternative water source for the slurry has been identified. Mohave's owners are understandably hesitant to spend $400 million on pollution controls without a solution to the water issue.

"If there's not a guaranteed water supply, then there's a question mark as to whether (Mohave) will exist beyond 2005," says Scott Harelson, a spokesman for the Phoenix-based Salt River Project, one of Mohave's owners.

The major parties all agree on the need to keep the coal mine operating: Mohave's owners need coal for the plant, Peabody needs a market for its product, and the Hopi and Navajo governments badly need revenue for their sagging economies. Disagreement lies in the effect Peabody's pumping is having on the health of the aquifer. Brian Dunfee, Peabody's manager of environmental engineering, says it's difficult to accurately gauge the impacts. "You're trying to predict the behavior of a system that you can't feel and touch very easily," he says. "This one's 3,000 feet below our feet."

But Peabody has invested millions of dollars in developing a 3-D model of the aquifer. Beth Sutton says the model validates what the company's other studies have shown - that mining will use "less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the total volume of water stored in the aquifer during the life of the operations." Dunfee doesn't dispute Hopi claims that water supplies are diminishing, but he attributes it to increasing groundwater usage in Hopi villages and surrounding Navajo towns, as well as recent years of low precipitation.

But an October 2000 Natural Resources Defense Council report claims that the aquifer has already failed damage tests established by the Office of Surface Mining, and the report blames Peabody. According to the report, the levels of two monitored wells have lost significant pressure, and discharge from five of nine monitored springs has declined by more than 50 percent. NRDC has used its findings to press both former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and current Secretary Gale Norton to call a halt to Peabody's groundwater pumping, but the effort has been unsuccessful.

Down to the wire

With Mohave's pollution-control installation deadlines looming, the issue needs to be resolved soon. Hopi Chairman Taylor has launched discussions with Peabody, Southern California Edison, Salt River Project and the Navajo Nation to develop a water infrastructure for the two reservations and to find another water source for the coal slurry.

One option that could meet both objectives is a pipeline from Lake Powell to Black Mesa Mine, with spurs to both reservations. Peabody has already agreed to contribute $50 million to the plan. But the pipeline proposal has been folded in with the Little Colorado River adjudication, in which Arizona courts are trying to divvy up rights to the basin's water. That process is moving forward very slowly, and it's also unlikely that Congress will approve or provide needed funds for the pipeline without more conclusive studies on the state of the Navajo Aquifer * studies that could take years to complete.

In the meantime, the Mohave Generating Station's owners are considering the possibility of converting to another fuel such as natural gas, says Steve Conroy, a spokesman for Southern California Edison, Mohave's operating agent and its majority owner.

Hopi Chairman Wayne Taylor knows he's walking a fine line between dependency on coal royalties and a conviction that his people's homeland is in jeopardy. "We come from the standpoint that water is our lifeblood," he explains. "It's just unconscionable to be using pristine water such as we have here for industrial use. We rely on the coal-mining operation for our revenue source, so we're interested in keeping that revenue-producing plant to stay alive. Our challenge is to find an alternative water supply to keep that operation going."

Daniel Kraker, a correspondent for Arizona Public Radio, lives in Kearns Canyon on the Hopi Reservation.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Claire Heywood, Hopi Tribe, 928/734-3283, www.hopi.nsn.us;
  • Beth Sutton, Peabody Energy, 928/525-3168, www.peabodyenergy.com;
  • Natural Resources Defense Council, 323/934-6900, www.nrdc.org/water/conservation/nblmesa.asp

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Daniel Kraker

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