Term Paper: Changes in the Sacred Landscape Dealing With the Black Mesa Coal Mine

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Black Mesa Mine

The Black Mesa Coal Mine is in Northern Arizona and is owned by the Peabody Coal Mining Company, which leases the land from the Hopi and Navajo tribes under an agreement from 1964. there are actually two mines in the are, both owned by the same power company under the same agreement, one at Black Mesa and the other at Kayenta, with each mine providing coal for a different power plant. The site today is the focus of a battle over the right to protect sacred lands and to maintain the way of life associated with hat land and the desire on the part of the power company to expand operations and to make the lease permanent for the life of the mine.

The region is home to the aforementioned Hopi and Navajo peoples, and a key to why these people settled here in the first place is found in the existence of the Navajo Aquifer, also called the N-aquifer, deep under ground and fully saturating the 3500 square miles of Black Mesa. Water seeps out of the edges of the aquifer and into the region's most productive watershed, the cliffs of Black Mesa, and the naturally occurring springs became the axis of Hopi culture, "the point to which the disparate clans that formed the tribe over the centuries migrated in an otherwise arid region" (Homans 2001:1).

The water has also become a key resource for the various farming, residential, and industrial facilities in the region, with the water distributed by the Central Arizona Project. The Black Mesa facility also provides power to Pheonix, Tucson, and Las Vegas, powered by the five million tons of coal extracted each year. The conflict today centers on issues of environmental degradation, legal ethics, and financial equity, in part because of damage to the land because of the strip-mining taking place, and in part because the springs and wells fed by the N-aquifer are drying up at a high rate, which threatens both the hydrological and social stability of the entire region (Homans 2001:1).

The Navajo and the Hopi have been in conflict over the land since the eleventh century (Benedek 1999:111). Hopi clans settled along the southern rim of Black Mesa and to this day continue intricate ceremonies to call rain to thirsty corn plants. Each Hopi village still bears the name of the spring that sustains it. It was in the 1960s when both the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribal Council signed mineral exploration agreements with Peabody Coal Company (now Peabody Energy), both tribal governments feeling compelled to do to in pursuit of economic development that would benefit their people. It has since been shown that the attorney for the Hopi Tribe was secretly working for the Peabody Coal Company at the same time that he advised the Hopi to approve the pumping of groundwater to transport the coal. The lease was made with the approval of the Department of the Interior (DOI), which holds tribal lands in trust, and part of the agreement stated that Peabody could be forced to find another way to move the coal if the slurry line was found to have an adverse effect on the N-aquifer. The government did not try to close the mine in spite of scientific evidence of the damage until environmental groups forced the closure of the Mohave Power Plant because of sulphur dioxide pollution of the air around the Grand Canyon (Black Mesa 2007:1).

The history of the region in the twentieth century shows how the natural resources of the area attracted entrepreneurs and politicians and how the Native Americans were enlisted under agreements like that forming the Black Mesa Mine, though a full understanding of what the environmental impact would be was lacking. The mining operation is under the regulatory control of the Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining (OSM), and as it became clear that the Black Mesa operation threatens the aquifer, the OSM called for an environmental impact statement (EIS), a document that has itself become the focus of controversy over its approval of the project. Conservationists state that the EIS "fails to analyze the environmental impacts of the massive water withdrawals on Navajo and Hopi reservations, concluding that four decades of water withdrawals have not harmed the Navajo aquifer and asserting that another two decades would continue to have negligible impacts. Springs flowing from the Navajo aquifer are sacred to both the Hopis and Navajos in the area, but many have run dry since the Peabody Coal Company began sucking up the water" (Center for Biological Diversity 2007:1).

From the first, the Native Americans were at a disadvantage because the government had to approve the original agreement and also wanted the water. In fact, the federal government was a major capitalizer of the venture as well as a major purchaser of power to be generated by the Navajo Generating Station. This meant that the secretary of the interior pressed for a successful and speedy conclusion to the negotiations, and to achieve this, the Bureau of Reclamation contributed its considerable technical capacities. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, on the other hand, could not provide the tribe with the expertise needed to make informed decisions, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs indeed had to rely on the Bureau of Reclamation for data and advice: "Lacking independent sources of data and advice and, in addition, being pressured by the Department of the Interior and its sister agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs presented the tribe an either-or option: either the tribe accepted limitations on its water rights or it would not receive any economic benefits from the Black Mesa coal mines" (Anderson et al. 1981:216).

More recently, application was made to the OSM for "the Peabody Western Coal Company's proposed operation and reclamation plans for the Black Mesa and Kayenta coal mines; the Coal Slurry Preparation Plant at the Black Mesa Mine; the reconstruction of the 273-mile long Coal Slurry Pipeline across northern Arizona from the Coal Slurry Preparation Plant to the Mohave Generating Station (electrical) in Laughlin, Nevada; the construction and operation of water wells in the Coconino aquifer (C-aquifer) northwest of Winslow, Arizona; and construction and operation of a water supply pipeline running about 120 miles across the Navajo and Hopi Reservations from the wells to the Coal Slurry Preparation Plant" (Federal Register Environmental Documents 2007:1)

If approved, this request would allow unfettered access to the aquifer, but the resulting protest caused the OSM to shelve this mining permit in 2006, after which the mines were closed. The protests lasted for years against what were deemed to be the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the West. The attack on the sacred waters continues, however, as an owner of the power plant asked the government to renew environmental review of the permit until 2026. The problem is explained by the Center for Biological Diversity:

The Black Mesa mine uses more than a billion gallons a year of pristine groundwater from northern Arizona to pump coal slurry to the Mohave Power Generating Station, 273 miles away. Springs flowing from the Navajo aquifer are sacred to the Hopis in the area, but many have run dry since Peabody began using the water (2007:1).

The Hopi and the Navajo, among others, want the federal government to look closely at the environmental and cultural impact of these operations and to look for alternatives producing less pollution.

Water is spiritually significant to the native people in the area, just as it is physically precious and necessary for life and industry alike. In addition to the problem of the use of water, Peabody has also built 222 impoundment ponds holding more than 4,400 square feet of water, meaning another 1.4 million gallons that are not flowing into local washes or percolating into the springs. The operation of the mines has been based on the false assumption that water is a limitless and renewable resource, which it is not:

The water Peabody pumped from the N-aquifer has depleted the most significant water source in the region. Underground water flows into natural subterranean storage areas and collects, coming out years later in the washes and springs. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, since Peabody began the current rate of pumping, N-aquifer levels have decreased by over 100 feet and poor-quality water is seeping in. The flow of Moencopi Wash is greatly diminished. The Hopi expect at least one village may be without water by 2011 (Black Mesa 2007:1).

The Peabody Western Coal company claims that the Black Mesa put more than two million dollars each week into area communities in the form of direct economic benefits, based opn mining jobs and the encouragement of economic development. The company also claims to be practicing a form of beneficial stewardship:

All mined land is restored to a productive condition that provides lasting benefits. Based on the wishes of the tribes, range is reclaimed for traditional use including livestock grazing, cultural plant cultivation… [END OF PREVIEW]

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