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Coal mining may be held hostage to tribal conflict

BLACK MESA, Ariz. – The expansion of a coal mining area in northern Arizona may rest with the outcome of a Hopi Tribal Council power struggle marked by legal moves and countermoves.

The tribal chairman, Ben Nuvamsa, went to Hopi appellate court Oct. 23, where he successfully quashed tribal arrest warrants that had been issued because he allegedly violated a tribal resolution suspending his authority.

Nuvamsa said the tribal council is seeking his ouster in part because of “issues such as the Black Mesa Environmental Impact Statement that they want approved so Peabody [Western] Coal Co. can have its way with our coal.”

The 758-page federal EIS assesses the impacts of a proposal to include both the Kayenta and Black Mesa mines in one mine permit incorporating thousands of acres atop Black Mesa, home to traditional Hopi communities. The change could enable additional mining in the future.

The Kayenta mine currently produces coal for the Navajo Generating Station near Page, and the Black Mesa mine supplied coal via a slurry line to the Mojave Generating Station in Nevada until it closed in 2005.

Todd Honyaoma, Hopi tribal vice chairman who led a tribal council meeting in which Nuvamsa was voted out, said by telephone, “Nuvamsa went about it [arrest warrants] in the wrong way. He went directly to the (Hopi) appeals court even though he hadn’t been arraigned on the charge.”

Nuvamsa, who contests his ouster, said the resolution he is said to have violated is not an ordinance and his arrest was illegal.

Honyaoma said the Black Mesa Project EIS is still in draft form and the tribal council still has time to approve or disapprove it.

Nuvamsa has questioned whether a tribal council in disarray can establish the required government-to-government relationship with the federal agency that prepared the EIS.

The project would require tribal council approval before it could go forward, and the 18 members (out of 22 positions) could vote on approval or disapproval of the EIS, Honyaoma said.

Honyaoma said “the tribe must consider the future of the children here” when considering issues around mining on Black Mesa, but declined to take a formal position because he said he will be presiding over a meeting on the EIS when it is released in final form.

Nuvamsa agreed “there is no tribal vote to accept any alternative on the Black Mesa EIS. The [Hopi] Energy Team claims they speak for the tribal council or the tribe, but if you look at the resolution that established the Energy Team, it clearly states the team must defer to the tribal council for the official position of the tribe.”

The final EIS, which was scheduled to be issued in December, may be completed in November, according to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement in Denver, lead agency in the environmental study.

Charges and counter-charges of allegedly illegal or irregular meetings, resolutions, and/or tribal positions have plagued the Hopi tribal council for more than a year.

Honyaoma said the central issue – which Nuvamsa has disputed – was that three tribal council members were appointed by Nuvamsa without the required approval of the traditional leaders of the First Mesa communities they represented.

Nuvamsa “should have known” the appointees were not approved by the village leaders under traditional government, Honyaoma said, a contention rejected by Nuvamsa supporters.

No date has been set for the tribal meeting to discuss the Black Mesa Project EIS other than a council session after it is issued as a final document, Honyaoma said.