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Environmental groups respond sharply to their ouster

KYKOTSMOVI, Ariz. – The battle waged against a major coal company by Hopi and Navajo activists and against large environmental groups by tribal officials has, at least temporarily, intensified the conflict playing out in northern Arizona over the control, preservation and use of cultural and natural resources.

“I never thought I would see the day when being ‘Hopi’ meant being anti-environment, pro-big corporate energy, and actually promoting pollution and global warming in favor of ‘the almighty dollar,’” Alph Secakuku said.

In addition to being Sipaulovi Village representative on the tribal council, he is president of Hopi Organizational Political Initiative, a grassroots group believed to be among those ousted from Hopi tribal land for being perceived allies of the Sierra Club and other large groups that have opposed Peabody Western Coal Company’s role in expanded strip mining.

On Sept. 28 the Hopi tribal council – its legitimacy challenged in political infighting – said the Sierra Club, National Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, Grand Canyon Trust, and “on-reservation organizations sponsored by or affiliated with the groups, are no longer welcome on the reservation.”

The announcement triggered sharp prepared responses from opponents of wider strip mining atop Black Mesa, an area sacred to traditionalists.

The ousted organizations were singled out for reportedly asking the Environmental Protection Agency to study Navajo Generating Station’s possible contribution to smog over the Grand Canyon, raising red flags about economic loss if the plant were to close. A controversial expanded mining permit federally approved last year ensures a coal supply for the plant’s continued operation.

In addition to H.O.P.I., the banned groups are said to include Black Mesa Water Coalition, To’ Nizhoni Ani (Navajo for beautiful water speaks), C-Aquifer for Diné and other community-based organizations, some of which have urged green development, including jobs in renewable energy and traditional occupations.

Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. supported the removal of environmental groups from Hopi lands, eliciting a sharp response from Black Mesa Water Coalition’s co-director Wahleah Johns, Navajo, who said the coalition believes Shirley is “misinformed as to the benefits of coal mining and coal-fired power plants and out of touch with the kind of economy the Navajo people want.

“Our organization has been working to support the traditional lifeways of weavers, ranchers, artisans and a new clean energy economy. After over 30 years of coal development on the Navajo reservation, most of our people still live below the national poverty line, and now there are increasing health problems due to fossil fuel development pollution and global warming.”

It is a “shocking blow to hear our elected president condemn Navajo citizens who have opposing views to coal development as ‘the greatest threat to tribal sovereignty, tribal self-determination, and our quest for independence,’” said Enei Begaye, coalition co-director. “The president’s statement is a stinging insult and threat to all Navajo citizens who don’t align their opinions with corporate values or President Shirley’s energy agenda.”

Ben Nuvamsa, former Hopi tribal chairman, said the “‘environmentalists’ stood by the Hopi Tribe when we opposed the making of artificial snow on our sacred Nuvatukyaovi (San Francisco Peaks.) They assisted in our opposition to the proposed uranium mining near the Grand Canyon. They assisted in securing protections for the American bald eagle.

“So why the opposition to ‘environmentalists’ now? Could it be financial and corporate greed? Absolutely,” said Nuvamsa, who resigned last year during tribal council turmoil.

Central to the current political strife is the Black Mesa Project Environmental Impact Statement and the Office of Surface Mining’s grant of a life-of-mine permit to Peabody Western Coal Co., which raised concerns that pristine aquifer water could be used for industrial purposes, he said.

Black Mesa’s coal is “strip-mined and burned to generate cheap electricity for California, southern Nevada and Arizona. After decades in operation, however, thousands of tribal homes near the mines, powerplants and transmission lines are still without electricity and running water. Unemployment chronically hovers above 40 percent,” said a joint statement of the Sierra Club and Grand Canyon Trust, which said the mining is “exploitation of tribal lands by outside interests has done little to alleviate chronic poverty.”

Mohave Generating Station in Nevada, which, when operating, had used Black Mesa coal, had agreed on pollution controls but was closed in 2005 because of a failure to reach an agreement with Navajo and Hopi governments on coal royalties and the protection of tribal water supplies.

Vernon Masayesva, another former Hopi tribal chairman and founder of the Black Mesa Trust, said the council’s action barring environmental groups “is part of the pro-Peabody council to clear the hurdles blocking Peabody from getting a life-of-mine permit to continue the destructive surface mining activities which have already destroyed an untold number of archaeological sites, burial grounds, rock art, and cultural resources.”