Dark Days on Black Mesa

The Hopi want one of the largest coal mines in North America to stop using their groundwater. If springs and wells dry up, their ancient culture may disappear.

"It was a big mistake of Udall's," says Josephy, a close friend of Udall's. "He was allowing people to deal for the Indians without even telling the Indians most of the time what was being dealt away."

Utilities were eager to construct power plants in remote locations so as not to exacerbate pollution problems in the burgeoning urban areas of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Twenty-three Western utilities formed a consortium called WEST Associates to push for development of coal resources on Black Mesa and throughout the Four Corners region, where several highly polluting plants already existed.

Salt River Project soon presented plans to build the Navajo Generating Station near Page on Navajo land.

The coal for that plant would come from Black Mesa.
While the Page plant would solve the technical problem, the politics were more tangled. California, which was accustomed to receiving Arizona's share of Colorado River water, fought the CAP. To help persuade California and Nevada to support the project, another power plant was proposed: the Mohave Generating Station near Laughlin, Nevada. That plant was dedicated to supplying cheap power primarily to Southern California and Nevada.

Once again, Black Mesa was to be the source of coal. The water beneath Black Mesa would be used in the slurry line to transport coal from the mine to the plant. And after the coal was removed, the water would be used in the power plant's cooling system.

A political resolution finally was hammered out in the 1968 Colorado Basin River Project Act, which set the stage for the construction of the CAP and the two massive electric generating stations.

The whole deal depended on Black Mesa.
The Hopi and Navajo were in a unique position to strike lucrative deals with Peabody and the utilities. Without their coal, the CAP wouldn't get past square one.

"Boyden knew the leverage the Hopi had," Wilkinson says.
But Boyden was also working for Peabody coal.
Instead of cutting a lucrative deal, the Hopi (and for that matter the Navajo, who were represented by separate counsel) ended up with scraps.

It wouldn't be until 1987--21 years after signing the initial lease--that the tribes began to get anywhere near a market rate of return for their coal.

By then Boyden was dead.
"He failed them miserably," Wilkinson says.
The $5 billion CAP has yet to fulfill its promise.

The heavily subsidized water is used on heavily subsidized crops. High payments on the CAP debt have forced several agricultural irrigation districts into bankruptcy. Many municipalities have rejected using the expensive and low-quality water. Arizona still is failing to take its full allotment of CAP water.

At the canal's terminus west of Tucson, millions of gallons of Colorado River water that have been pumped across 300 miles of desert, propelled by power generated with Black Mesa coal, are unceremoniously dumped onto a dry lake bed.

The costly CAP water either evaporates or percolates back into the earth.

The Hopi experience with John Boyden taught them a lesson. The tribe no longer relies on a single attorney for all its legal matters.

Nevertheless, when it comes to Indian lands and politics, there's a potential conflict of interest under every rock.

The tribe is currently in sensitive negotiations to settle a complicated water-rights case on the Little Colorado River, which flows near the Hopi reservation. A proposal to build a pipeline that would deliver Lake Powell water to Peabody coal and to the Hopi and Navajo tribes is part of the settlement.

The plan requires the Hopi to pay $75 million or more to get 2,000 acre-feet of Lake Powell water each year to its villages. The proposal would also allow Peabody to stop pumping groundwater--a high priority of the Hopi.

The settlement proposal, however, is opposed by some members of the Hopi Tribal Council and the former Hopi tribal chairman.

Besides the high cost to the Hopi, critics say the proposed settlement was developed by a man with strong ties to the Navajo.

Animosity and suspicion between the Hopi and Navajo run high.
The tribes continue to battle over land rights. Illegal Navajo occupation of some Hopi land has earned the Hopi a judgment against the Navajo worth about $20 million. The Navajo, so far, have refused to pay the judgment.

Under the proposed Little Colorado settlement developed by Arizona's Apache County Superior Court Judge Michael C. Nelson, the Hopi would forgive that judgment against the Navajo.

Before he became a judge, Nelson served as legal counsel to former Navajo tribal chairman Peterson Zah between 1982 and 1987. He's also written several books about Navajo government and has served on several Navajo committees.

Former Hopi tribal chairman Vernon Masayesva is worried about Nelson's long relationship with the Navajo and his proposed Little Colorado settlement.

"Why should we support the position where the Navajos would not have to pay a $20 million settlement to the Hopi?" Masayesva asks.

Masayesva says he's sensitive to potential conflicts of interest, "particularly after having seen what John Boyden has done."

The long, sordid history of the exploitation of Black Mesa by Peabody, Boyden, the federal government and utilities has turned Masayesva and other tribal leaders into cynics.

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