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Know the West

On Black Mesa, the natives make a comeback


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Planting time."

BLACK MESA, Navajo Nation — On a sterling, sunny spring day, a 14-story-tall machine chews gaping holes in the Navajo Nation tribal homeland. The Marion 8750 dragline weighs 9.8 million pounds, supports a 300-foot boom and operates a bucket that removes 200 tons of rocky earth with one bite. The treasure it seeks: coal.

Each year, Marions like this one uncover 13 million tons of subbituminous, low-sulfur coal from this piñon, juniper and sage-dotted highland within the Colorado Plateau. The Kayenta and Black Mesa mines employ about 650 Navajo and Hopi workers. Last year, the mines’ owner, Peabody Western Coal Co., paid the two tribes $51 million in royalties, water and business payments — nearly 30 percent of the Navajo Nation’s general budget and about 80 percent of the Hopi Tribe’s (HCN, 3/4/02: Is a coal mine pumping the Hopi dry?). The coal fuels power plants in Page, Ariz., and Laughlin, Nev., which provide electricity for 3.5 million Southwest families.

But from its inception, the older Black Mesa Mine has been fraught with controversy. Some Indian activists tried to stop the mine in the 1960s, and, decades later, had their suspicions confirmed, when it was discovered that the attorney who negotiated the coal leases on behalf of the Hopi Tribe was at the same time on the payroll of Peabody — something that Peabody denies to this day.

More recently, the Black Mesa Mine, which mixes coal with water and pipes the slurry to the Mojave Power Plant in Laughlin, has been working without a permit since 1990. The tribes claim the slurry is draining an underground aquifer, and drying out wells and streams (HCN, 3/30/98: A giant plume into the air). They’ve asked the secretary of Interior not to sign a new permit until the company finds a new source of water.

When it comes to cleaning up and reclaiming the mine site, however, relations between Peabody and the tribes seem to be going well. Mining at Black Mesa disturbs about 400 acres per year, according to Peabody’s senior environmental scientist, Vern Pfannenstiel.

Reclamation crews restore from 400 to 600 acres per year, including roads and other disturbances. After the coal is removed, bulldozers push a mountain of dirt and rocks back into the mine pit and contour the land back to its approximate original shape. Then, tractors till the slopes to prevent erosion and drill-plant more than 20 pounds of seeds per acre. In the 1960s and early ’70s, the tribes had only general reclamation requirements, and Peabody planted mostly exotics that would feed cows and sheep. But that didn’t make some tribal members happy.

“Domesticated livestock will consume any-thing; they’re not very particular,” says Earl Toolie, a member of Diné CARE — Citizens Against Ruining our Environment — a Navajo environmental group. “Ask the people living there who use plants for medicinal use — they’re the ones who are going to tell you if the land and plants have been restored.”

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 stipulated stricter reclamation requirements, and a new industry made native seeds available in bulk for the first time. These days, Peabody’s primary seed mix includes up to 85 percent native plants such as blue gramagrass, galleta grass, alkali sacaton grass and fourwing saltbush — 20 species in all.

In response to requests from the tribes, Peabody also began seeding plants that have cultural and medicinal uses. That’s where Eric Bronston got into the act. Bronston, raised in Shonto, a nearby community with about 200 scattered families, passed up a chance to attend college when he was hired in 1981 as part of the reclamation team. As the son of a medicine man, Bronston had picked up a lot of knowledge about culturally valuable plants. Navajos and Hopis use some plants in tonics to treat minor ailments, such as stomachaches, fevers or headaches. Others are used to make dyes for arts and crafts, and as part of various ceremonies.

To date, reclamation teams have planted up to 50 different species of culturally and medicinally important plants, including green Mormon tea, banana leaf yucca, fourwing saltbush, cliffrose, Gambel oak, fringed sage, Indian ricegrass, needle-and-thread grass and piñon pine. This is done at considerable extra expense; according to the company, it costs upwards of $2,000 per acre to plant the seeds — more than twice the cost of reseeding rangeland. “Some plants, like Navajo or Hopi tea, you can’t find seed for,” Bronston says. “We have to collect almost all that seed by hand.”

Last year, the Department of Interior presented Peabody’s Kayenta Mine with its Director’s Award for “innovative programs to protect cultural, historic and archaeological resources on Arizona’s Black Mesa.”