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Delays sought in Black Mesa mine environmental approval process

BLACK MESA, Ariz.—Despite a Congressional representative’s plea and a divided Hopi Tribal Council, a federal agency on Nov. 7 issued a final environmental document that paves the way for a controversial coal mining permit to be approved.

The Black Mesa Project final environmental impact statement would enable expansion of Peabody Western Coal Co.’s renewable permit for Kayenta mine, which supplies coal to the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz., to include the significant coal reserves of Black Mesa mine for which no proposed use has been identified.

In certain circumstances – termed “remote” by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement – pumping from an aquifer could take place under one alternative plan described in the document, raising issues around traditional practices, tribal control and resource depletion.

The FEIS is not a “decision document,” in government-speak; however, a record of decision – which would enable the expanded mine permit – could be issued Dec. 7 and almost certainly will be issued before the December holidays, said Rick Holbrook, of OSM’s Denver office, in a telephone conversation Nov. 10.

In addition to concerns raised by the Black Mesa Trust and Sierra Club, among others, U. S. Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has asked Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne to suspend activities on the proposed FEIS, contending OSM is “hurriedly conducting a deeply flawed environmental review” and its proposal grants access to the Navajo Aquifer in violation of the Hopi Tribal Council’s official position.

“At this time, no one has the authority to consult with OSM and make decisions on behalf of the Hopi Tribal Council on matters related to the mining and water withdrawals on Black Mesa,” Grijalva said.

Ben Nuvamsa, Hopi tribal chairman, has asserted that, as owners of the resource, the Hopi “should not be in a situation where we are a cooperating agency but not a decision-making entity.”

The issue of Black Mesa Mine has fueled a dispute between Nuvamsa and Todd Honyaoma, tribal vice-chair, who has sought Nuvamsa’s ouster and who declines to take a public position on the EIS, although he has said there is still time to approve or disapprove it.

The Mohave Generating Station that used Black Mesa Mine coal closed in 2005, and, because no other proposed use has been identified for the coal, “there is no actual proposed project involving Black Mesa Mine coal to be analyzed, making the pending EIS not only premature, but in direct conflict with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act,” Grijalva said in the Oct. 28 letter to Kempthorne.

Any concomitant grant of rights to Navajo Aquifer would be “an affront to tribal communities” and would be a violation of trust responsibility, he said.

OSM’s analysis scrutinizes “a non-existent project, and even worse, is doing so in spite of the inability of the Hopi tribal government to meaningfully participate in the NEPA process” in violation of Interior’s trust responsibility, he said.

Grijalva asked for a delay until OSM “can determine the actual purpose and need of this project” and until “the Hopi tribal government is again intact and can participate in the permitting and environmental review process.”

Holbrook said the FEIS is “just an informational document, and there’s really no approval or disapproval of an EIS,” adding that scientific analyses showed there is “no discernible effect of Navajo Aquifer pumping.”

The OSM official said the current controversy is “an example of (the Hopi and Navajo) not quite understanding how things are working.” He said in the 1960s when leases were issued to Peabody, both Hopi and Navajo tribal councils signed leases that provided for the use of water if it was at least 1,000 feet below ground. Although science “showed there was no damage to the aquifer” the tribes changed their minds and did not want to recognize that there was a binding agreement, he said.

Grijalva asked that Interior provide for additional hearings and information meetings to be held on Hopi tribal lands in 2009 after tribal ceremonies have ended to allow full participation by members. Asked about further meetings, Holbrook said OSM met with the Hopi Tribal Council in September and had no plans to meet again.

Holbrook said that OSM has attempted to accommodate Hopi and Navajo traditional practices, extending the comment period on the draft environmental document months after that period would normally have been closed, and added that, overall, the agency has tried to be considerate of the tribes’ cultural practices.