Coal firm may pull its straw out of aquifer


MOENKOPI, Ariz. - Hubert Lewis recalls hot summer days when he and other children of this Hopi village would get relief from the cool water in Moenkopi Wash.

Moenkopi - which in Hopi means "a place where water flows' - sits right above one of the few waterways that traverse the arid reservation in northeastern Arizona.

But today, the 55-year-old Lewis is one of many tribal members who wonder where the water has gone. Moenkopi Wash dries up during the summer, and the winter flow is not what it used to be, they say.

"That wash used to always be running, and there was a good volume of water," says Lewis, who is now governor of Upper Moenkopi Village. "The village is very concerned because there isn't that much water being stored in our irrigation system anymore, and several of our springs have dried up."

Springs in other areas - some used by the Hopis for religious ceremonies for hundreds of years - are also in decline. Navajos living in the Black Mesa area make the same complaint.

When asked what causes this problem, Hopis agree: Peabody Western Coal Co.'s mining operation on Black Mesa. Although it is 50 miles north of their villages, Hopis believe the mining depletes the water upon which their 10,000-member tribe depends.

The British-owned coal company uses about 1 billion gallons of groundwater annually to slurry pulverized coal 273 miles from Black Mesa to the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev. The power plant is owned by four utilities which mainly serve customers in Southern California and the Las Vegas area.

For years, the Hopis have called upon the federal government to exercise its trust responsibility and halt the pumping. They may have made enough noise to be heard.

Peabody recently announced it is considering building a 90-mile pipeline with the Navajo Tribe to transport water from Lake Powell to the Black Mesa Mine and nearby Navajo communities. The announcement marks a major shift from Peabody's previous position that such a pipeline would be both unnecessary and too expensive.

"We're certain that there is no long-term impact (on the aquifer), but that doesn't make the issue go away for the Hopis," says Irene Crawford, an attorney with Peabody. "We have a business relationship with these people and we want to work this out."

Peabody's shift comes as Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt gets ready to decide whether to issue a permanent permit for the Black Mesa Mine, which has operated under an interim permit since the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 went into effect.

The Hopis last summer asked Babbitt to deny the permit unless the company stops using groundwater and looks for an alternative water source. They expect Babbitt, an Arizona native, to issue his decision soon, although an Interior Department spokesman says no deadline has been set.

The Hopis also asked Babbitt to push for the Lake Powell pipeline, which, according to Hopi consultants, would increase ratepayers' monthly electric bills between 1 cent and 6 cents if Peabody passed on the cost of construction.

Hopi Chairman Ferrell Secakuku welcomes Peabody's unexpected decision to consider the pipeline. The company's decision is a "productive step towards solving one of the greatest problems facing both tribes," Secakuku says. Discussions between the two tribes, Peabody and the Department of Interior should begin immediately, he says.

The right to pump water is included in the coal leases Peabody signed with the Navajo and Hopi tribes in the mid-1960s, but Hopi officials say they were never fully informed of the slurry line's impact on water.

Over the past decade, the U.S. government, Peabody and the tribes have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers and experts in an effort to determine whether the coal company is indeed depleting the Navajo Sandstone Aquifer.

Peabody maintains that the slurry operation will barely affect the aquifer, which holds pristine water dating back to the ice age more than 16,000 years ago. According to Crawford, the slurry will use only one-tenth of 1 percent of the water stored over its life.

A 1993 independent study, paid for by Peabody and the Navajo and Hopi tribes, reaffirmed previous reports which determined the impact would be relatively small.

But the Hopi Tribe points to a memo written last October by the U.S. Geological Survey's Office of Ground Water which acknowledged that a computer model USGS used to simulate the impact - and which previous studies were based on - is "highly uncertain."

"This model is not well suited to address concerns about adverse effects on individual washes and springs," wrote William Alley, chief of the office.

The USGS admission was alarming, says Ron Morgan, hydrologist for the Hopi Tribe.

"The Hopi Tribe does not wish for the coal mining to cease, because 80 percent of the tribal government revenue comes from the mine," Morgan says. "They would be happy to see the model demonstrate that there is no impact, but also that there is no uncertainty."

But most of all, Morgan adds, they would like to see Peabody pull out of the aquifer for good.

The writer free-lances out of Flagstaff, Arizona.

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