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.

In the early 1960s Peabody signed leases with the Hopi and Navajo tribes that allowed the company to prospect and mine coal on more than 100 square miles of Black Mesa. Peabody hit the jackpot. The company discovered one of the richest coal deposits in the world--and Peabody had exclusive rights to it.

By the early 1970s Peabody had built one of the largest coal strip mines in the United States. The company signed long-term coal contracts with two power plants that were built in the early '70s to sate the power needs of burgeoning Southwestern cities.

One of those contracts is with Southern California Edison's Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada. Peabody engineers reviewed several possible methods of transporting the coal to Laughlin, including truck and rail. But the company also knew that Black Mesa sat atop the sodden Navajo sandstone.

The company decided that the cheapest way to transport its coal to Laughlin was to mix the coal with groundwater and inject the slurry into an underground pipeline. The company draws water from eight wells dug deep into the thickest section of the Navajo sandstone aquifer; Peabody sucks 3,800 acre-feet of water each year from the ground. (An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot; it is also estimated to be the amount of water used by a family of four in a year.) The 273-mile-long pipeline moves about five million tons of coal each year.

Once the pumping began, the Navajo sandstone aquifer was thrown out of balance. Natural discharges and well withdrawals exceeded recharge. Peabody believes the amount of water it is withdrawing is small in comparison to the size of the aquifer. "If we ship all the coal to Mohave that is available to us, we will only use one-tenth of 1 percent of the volume of the water in the aquifer," says Peabody vice president of operations Gary A. Melvin.

But the Hopi contend that because their villages are located at the southern edge of Black Mesa, above a considerably narrower portion of the Navajo sandstone aquifer, Peabody's withdrawals are lowering the water table and drying up water sources that were reliable in the past.

"When you start withdrawing that amount of water, that affects the recharge of the springs, and it can have a devastating impact," says Nat Nutongla, director of the Hopi tribe's water-resources program.

The debate over how much impact Peabody's wells are having is being waged in a seemingly endless series of contradictory hydrogeologic reports. A definitive answer may be decades away.

But one thing is certain on Black Mesa: Peabody's coal-slurry line will remain a center of controversy.

Slurry lines are rarely used to transport coal in the United States. The fact that Peabody uses the method in one of the driest regions on Earth is startling.

In a 1993 letter to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, the Hopi tribe complained that the slurry line at Black Mesa "is the only instance in American history where coal has been transported with groundwater, let alone pristine groundwater that represents the only source of drinking water for an Indian Tribe."

The past and present collide on the Hopi's beautiful mesas.
Meticulously constructed sandstone rock homes dating back a century or more are interspersed with the angular cinderblock homes of today.

Dirt roads twist through ancient villages and lead to homes equipped with satellite dishes.

Hopi villages have retained a distinct, noncommercial identity. Businesses are few. Advertising and billboards are sparse. Hopi voters rejected a proposal to build casinos as a revenue source. Many Hopi are self-employed artisans or work for the tribal government.

Where its Navajo neighbors are building modern shopping centers, the Hopi reservation, which is surrounded by the Navajo reservation, has a few small markets. Most Hopi still drive to Flagstaff, a hundred miles away, to do such basic tasks as wash clothes.

Power, water and sewer lines are slowly linking Hopi villages to a society many have resisted for decades.

Dances, ceremonies and art remain vital to the Hopi, but Hopi traditionalists say their spiritual underpinnings have become secondary to entertainment.

Hopi youth stepping off a school bus look like many urban kids, sporting saggy jeans and hip-hop styles. They're wild about basketball.

As modern technology encroaches on the Hopi mesas, many of the traditions of the past are fading. The Hopi language is dying; few children learn their native tongue. The gardens that once flourished on the steep hillsides are crumbling from neglect.

Few Hopi gather their water from springs as their ancestors did. The art of dry-land farming is losing its luster. The lure of the conveniences of modern life is disconnecting the Hopi from their past.

It is a trend that disturbs many traditional Hopi.
"The young people are getting further and further away from our culture," Valjean Joshvema laments.

The Hopi are a divided people; many traditionalists don't even recognize the Tribal Council as a legitimate body. But on the issue of water, Hopi leaders--both progressive and traditional--are united.

They believe Peabody's extraction of 1.2 billion gallons of groundwater a year is drying up springs and diminishing flows in washes they have worshiped and relied upon for generations.

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