Navajos win round in coal mine war

  After years of fighting Peabody Western Coal Co., Navajos in northeast Arizona have won a court victory against a strip mine on their reservation. Citing the desecration of burial sites, poisoned livestock and filthy air and water, an Interior Department judge in Phoenix reversed a decision by the federal Office of Surface Mining to renew the company's Kayenta mine permit.

The Diné Alliance, a Navajo citizens' group, and a Phoenix-based group, Don't Waste Arizona, filed appeals against both Peabody and the federal Office of Surface Mining after the permit was renewed last July. Steve Brittle of Don't Waste Arizona says the groups don't want to close the mine since it employs about 450 Native Americans. "We just wanted Peabody to stop breaking the law," he says. Judge Ramon Child allowed Peabody to continue operating temporarily, but ordered it to meet permit requirements. If it doesn't, Brittle says, the Navajos could ask Child for a temporary restraining order closing the mine.

Although Peabody officials say that their operation is clean, some sheep and goats have died hours after drinking water contaminated by coal dust and oil. Strip mining has also destroyed the graves of an infant and two adults, and a planned expansion would have disturbed an additional 100 burial sites. Judge Child said, "There appears to be an accepted tolerance on the part of the Office of Surface Mining and Peabody to the adverse effects mining has upon the lives and well-being of Native Americans."

* Michelle McClellan

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