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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.

The Navajo power plant was built primarily to provide power to operate the $5 billion Central Arizona Project, a series of canals that pumps water more than 300 miles from the Colorado River near Lake Havasu to the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas and surrounding farms, industries and Indian tribes. CAP is designed to deliver more than two million acre-feet of water per year to central Arizona towns, an amount sufficient to provide for eight million people.

Like the Mohave plant, the Navajo power station provides electricity to powerful utility companies, including the Salt River Project (the facility's operator), Arizona Public Service Company, Nevada Power Company, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Tucson Electric Power Company.

Peabody not only fuels a massive power and water grid that drives economic development in the Southwest; the mining conglomerate has also become the economic backbone of the Navajo and Hopi tribes.

Revised leases in 1987 greatly increased royalties to both tribes. In recent years the Hopi tribe has received about $10 million of its $17 million annual budget from Peabody. The Navajo Nation, 160,000 strong, is collecting about $35 million a year in coal royalties and water payments from Peabody. (The Navajo are receiving more royalties because the mines are located primarily on Navajo land.)

Peabody's mines also employ about 700 Navajo workers and a handful of Hopi employees at wages and benefits averaging more than $55,000 annually. A fringe benefit for the Native Americans: all the free coal they can cart off.

Facing so much economic power, it's not surprising that Hopi concerns about groundwater remain unknown to the public--let alone attract serious attention from Congress or the Clinton administration.

And the Hopi are alone in their fight to get Peabody off groundwater. The Navajo government is not concerned about Peabody's groundwater use.

Stanley Pollack, water-rights attorney for the Navajo, claims there is no evidence that Peabody's groundwater withdrawals are damaging the aquifer. Pollack says diminished flow from Hopi springs and washes is because of improper placement of Hopi municipal wells rather than Peabody's industrial wells.

Peabody, Pollack says, draws all the attention because it is withdrawing vast amounts from the aquifer. But Peabody's wells are many miles away from Hopi villages and have only a minor effect on groundwater levels on the Hopi reservation, Pollack claims.

"Peabody," Pollack says, "is an easy target."

Since his term as Hopi tribal chairman expired in 1993, Vernon Masayesva has devoted much of his time to finding a way to stop Peabody from using groundwater for its mining operations.

While the numerous groundwater studies conducted by both private and federal agencies are inconclusive, Masayesva is more convinced than ever that Peabody is having a serious impact on Hopi water supplies.

"The more we look into the impact on the aquifer, the more we find serious damage occurring," Masayesva says.

Tribal elders report numerous instances of diminished or drying springs that hydrogeologists have linked directly to the Navajo sandstone aquifer.

Masayesva also points to an April 1996 draft report prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey that shows a sharply reduced groundwater-recharge rate in the area of the aquifer shared by Peabody and Hopi villages.

The report concludes that 90 percent of the water in the aquifer is 10,000 to 35,000 years old and that it collected there during the ice ages.

The report also states that the current recharge rate of the aquifer is 2,600 to 3,600 acre-feet per year, substantially less than the previous USGS estimate of 4,800 acre-feet per year.

Most important, at least to the Hopi, is that the USGS draft report shows for the first time that Peabody is taking out more water than is being naturally recharged.

The draft report, Masayesva says, is an important development in the long series of studies on the aquifer.

But so far, the USGS report remains in draft form, in part because of extensive comments provided by Peabody, which helped pay for the survey. The company conducted its own study using the same techniques as USGS and concluded that the recharge rate is much higher than USGS's draft report, according to Gary Melvin at Peabody.

In fact, Melvin says the Peabody data shows the recharge rate to be near predictions in USGS models developed in the early 1980s. Peabody's data has been forwarded to USGS for consideration in the agency's final report, Melvin says.

"We have yet to see anything that would cause us any concern or lead us to change any of the assumptions in our earlier studies," Melvin says.

The Hopi, however, claim they don't need definitive proof to shut down Peabody's wells.

Masayesva says the tribe's obligation under federal law is to simply show that there is a "threat" to the groundwater resource.

Once that threat is shown, the federal government--under its trust responsibility to Indian tribes--is required to conduct the studies and determine whether Peabody is depleting the aquifer.

And in this case, Masayesva says, the government doesn't have to prove damage, but only that Peabody poses a danger to the aquifer. The lower standard is a result of the lease language required by Stewart Udall: "Should the Secretary of Interior determine, at any time, that the operation of the wells by [Peabody] is endangering the supply of underground water in the vicinity or is so lowering the water that other users of such water are being damaged, he may...require Peabody Coal Company, at its sole expense, to obtain water for its mining and pipeline operations from another source that will not significantly affect the supply of underground water in the vicinity."

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