Both the Navajo and Hopi nations have demanded that Peabody Western Coal Company (PWCC) stop pumping groundwater from the Navajo Aquifer, their source of drinking water, by the end of 2005. But PWCC has proposed to extend this deadline until 2008, increase water use by more than 20 percent, and keep the aquifer indefinitely as a back-up.
The Office of Surface Mining (OSM) has been holding public meetings on the Navajo and Hopi reservations and in Flagstaff, Arizona, for comment on PWCCÂ’s current mine permit revision application to extend operations at its Black Mesa and Kayenta mines on the reservations. Grassroots and national groups and the City of Flagstaff held a press conference January 13 to air concerns about the process.
Activists and residents of the area have complained about inadequate public access to information regarding the potential cultural and environmental impacts of the mine proposal, and expressed concern that local Hopi and Navajo voices went unheard during the comment period, which ended Friday. Limited translation at hearings on the reservations, limited ability for people to get to the hearings that took place far from their homes, and technical information available only in English were among the frustrations.
Though the hearings were generally packed, Nicole Horseherder, co-founder of the Navajo organization ToÂ’ Nizhoni Ani, which means Beautiful Water Speaks, said that thousands of people were unable to make it to the meetings.
"ThereÂ’s a lack of understanding between the OSM and grassroots people," Horseherder said. "I was imagining their translations into English: Translating Â‘Mother EarthÂ’ into Â‘landÂ’, and Â‘sacred waterÂ’ into Â‘just another resource.Â’"
Navajo and Hopi residents who live near the Black Mesa and Kayenta mines have documented sinkholes and dried-up springs that they believe have resulted from PWCC pumping N-Aquifer water to slurry coal through a 273-mile pipeline to the Mojave Generating Station in Nevada. That station supplies power to Las Vegas and southern California.
In December, the California Public Utilities Commission ordered the Mojave station shut down by the end of 2005. Whether or not it reopens depends in part on finding alternatives to N-Aquifer use. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is leading a feasibility study for PWCCÂ’s potential use of the Coconino Aquifer, a larger, deeper aquifer on which Flagstaff and surrounding communities rely. Meanwhile, PWCC intends to increase coal-production and build a coal-washing facility, temporarily increasing its use of the N-Aquifer until the C-Aquifer alternative becomes available.
But the C-Aquifer is not a guaranteed source because the City of Flagstaff has passed a resolution demanding inclusion in water use decisions that affect the city. Council member Art Babbott said he does not believe PWCCÂ’s proposed water use is sustainable and in the best interest of northern Arizona. He advocated a regional approach to water management, saying that while the city and the tribes may be politically and culturally divided, they are "hydrologically linked."
Enei Begaye, water campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network, said that the OSM hearing in Flagstaff was packed with residents concerned about unsustainable water use, but that there was also concern for the importance of mining in the local economy. But even at the hearing in Kayenta, where the mine workers live, people expressed opposition to use of the N-Aquifer, Begaye said. They preferred to find alternative means of transporting coal.
Wahleah Johns of the Black Mesa Water Coalition questioned PWCCÂ’s mine operations altogether. "EverybodyÂ’s so afraid that if the mine shuts down itÂ’s the end of the world. No, itÂ’s not! We are people of perseverance," she said. Johns discussed opportunities for sustainable development, such as solar and wind energy. "As young people, we are going to continue this work and inform our communities."