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Coal permit expansion approved as Hopi chairman resigns

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DENVER, Colo. – A controversy over coal mining in northern Arizona reached a milestone Dec. 22 when a federal agency gave the go-ahead for Peabody Western Coal Co. to expand an existing long-term permit on Black Mesa, home to Navajo and Hopi villages.

Around the same time the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement revised Kayenta Mine’s permit, Ben Nuvamsa resigned as Hopi tribal chairman in an effort to end a divisive tribal conflict that centered in part on whether Peabody should control Black Mesa’s vast coal resources and tap its underlying aquifers.

“I’m not proposing shutting down mining, but I think there’s a better way of mining and I think Hopi should be at the core of making policy decisions – deciding product and prices and other things. I also believe there needs to be enacted a tax ordinance to impose a tax on Peabody Coal,” he said by phone, asserting that a past Hopi decision not to tax Peabody was, “not a sound decision.”

“The other part of that (permit revision) is that they’re going to reserve the coal deposits for a heck of a long time – the Hopi Tribe won’t have a say in how much mining is done, when, what kinds of product we are making and so on.”

The Kayenta Mine currently supplies 8.5 million tons of coal to the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz. and the Black Mesa mine, which is included within the new permit boundaries, supplied coal via a slurry line to the Mojave Generating Station in Nevada until it closed in 2005.

OSM has said Kayenta Mine has sufficient coal reserves to supply the generating station through 2026, but the permit revision “provides certainty,” Brent Wahlquist, OSM director, noted in a news release.

The intent of the long-term permit is “to improve or enhance the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the mine plan for the Kayenta mining operation,” according to the Black Mesa Project final environmental impact statement, a required precursor to the agency’s decision on the permit.

“This decision does not affect the use of groundwater, nor does it include any plans to mine remaining coal reserves on the Black Mesa portion of the complex,” Wahlquist said in the prepared remarks.

Nuvamsa in a Dec. 16 letter to Wahlquist said OSM “claims that no change in historical water use is a benefit,” but “what we have clearly been asking for is a reduction in water use, not the maintenance of the status quo.”

As described in the FEIS the agency’s preferred plan for the permit revision calls for the use of N-aquifer water averaging 1,236 acre-feet/year for mine-related uses through 2025, an amount that “would be much less than the amount that has been withdrawn in the past and would result in negligible impact.”

The Hopi tribal council meeting Dec. 22 at which Nuvamsa resigned was to have been an attempt at arriving at a unified Hopi tribal council position.

Nuvamsa has told OSM that required government-to-government negotiations over the mining permit have been impossible because of a divided tribal council and questions about the status of the tribal chairmanship.

Acknowledging the turmoil, he said that he does not believe the BIA will intervene, but that “the Hopi people will have to step forward” to resolve it. Tribal council members on a water and energy team “ought to be held accountable for not protecting our resources,” he said.

In a long-running series of events, Nuvamsa had been stripped of his authority to speak for the tribe – illegally, he contends – and was involved in various legal challenges mounted by his opponents. He witnessed the dissolution of the tribe’s appellate court, and, finally, and apparently unsuccessfully, asked the BIA to intervene. The Hopi Tribe’s vice-chairman also resigned as of Dec. 31, leaving questions about the tribe’s leadership.

Among potential issues as described in the FEIS are the relocation of five Navajo families on mining-permitted land and a decrease in water quality in local wells.

About 5,500 acres in the Black Mesa Complex would be incorporated into the revised permit area and could be mined if OSM and the Bureau of Land Management approved an application to do so, the FEIS states.

“Without knowing a new customer’s purpose and need for purchasing and using the coal, the amount and quality of the coal needed per year, and a plan for mining and transporting the coal, impacts associated with the potential transaction cannot be predicted,” it notes.

OSM’s decision followed controversy over a provision of one alternative retained in the FEIS that would, opponents say, open the possibility of future mining and aquifer use under developments OSM deems “highly unlikely” to occur.

The permit revision expands the boundary of the overall mining area by about 19,000 acres to largely coincide with the lease boundary and coal reserves the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe leased to Peabody.

The permit revision brings existing support facilities at Black Mesa Complex under permanent regulatory program requirements of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. The FEIS was prepared under mandates of the National Environmental Policy Act.


Federal decision draws angry reaction on Black Mesa

[Drop Cap] The response from a Navajo/Hopi citizens group came quickly after a federal agency approved an expanded Peabody Western Coal Co. mine permit area on Black Mesa in northern Arizona Dec. 22.

“We are looking into our options for how to stop this process from moving forward, including legal action,” Enei Begaye said in a prepared statement Dec. 23. “This decision will uproot the sacred connection that we have to land, water, and all living things on Black Mesa,” Wahleah Johns said. They are co-directors of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, which has opposed the federal action.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement approved a revision that expanded the long-term, renewable permit for existing Kayenta Mine to include the Black Mesa Mine area, including its surface facilities and coal reserves.

Kayenta Mine supplies coal to the Navajo Generating Station at Page, Ariz. and the Black Mesa Mine supplied coal to the now-closed Mohave Generating Station in Nevada. The mines are located on Navajo and former Navajo-Hopi joint lease area lands.

The coalition and others have expressed concern in several areas including the adequacy of the environmental analysis required for the permit, the apparent inability of Hopi tribal government to take unified action, and the further depletion of aquifers that supply water for drinking and for ceremonial purposes.

“This is the worst kind of Christmas present,” Samantha Honani, Hopi/Tewa, said. She also noted the Hopi are “without a tribal leader.”

Ben Nuvamsa, former Hopi tribal chairman, resigned the same day OSM approved the permit revision. In a statement issued the day after his resignation, Nuvamsa said he had attempted to follow the principles of sound government in the face of internal turmoil, part of which has focused on Black Mesa.

Nuvamsa said immediate action should be taken on issues around the Black Mesa EIS and permit and on restoration of the tribe’s appellate court, suspended as part of a long-standing tribal council dispute.

“Our teachings tell us that we must not exploit our resources as they are important to the preservation and perpetuation of our tradition and our ceremonies and to our future as Hopi and Tewa people,” he said.

“Our sovereignty, albeit limited, is important,” he said. “We cannot delegate our sovereignty or give it away to an outside organization.”

OSM’s permit decision brings existing support facilities on Black Mesa under the permanent regulatory program requirements of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

“OSM carries out the requirements of SMCRA in cooperation with states and Indian tribes,” the agency stated in a Dec. 22 news release. “OSM’s objectives are to ensure that coal mining activities are conducted in a manner that protects citizens and the environment during mining, to ensure that the land is restored to beneficial use after mining, and to mitigate the effects of past mining by aggressively pursuing reclamation of abandoned coal mines.”

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