Skip to main content

Federal officials listen but reject tribal members’ concerns about aquifer use

  • Author:
  • Updated:

DENVER – Representatives from Hopi and Navajo communities voiced their opposition Dec. 8 about a northern Arizona coal development, but Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement officials overrode their objections and said the Black Mesa Project will be allowed to go forward.

Al Klein, OSM’s western regional director, said that while the meeting was called to listen to the tribal representatives, a formal decision will be issued by Dec. 15 concluding the process required for Peabody Western Coal Co. to extend Kayenta Mine’s boundary around dormant Black Mesa Mine.

Although Kayenta Mine produces coal for a generating station, Black Mesa Mine supplied a defunct plant that OSM considers unlikely to reopen, and no other uses have been identified for the coal. The Hopi and Navajo delegation is concerned that if the plant reopens, water could again be pumped from an aquifer they feel should not be used for coal production or slurry.

“OSM, I know you have a job to do, but please listen to us,” Ben Nuvamsa, Hopi tribal chairman, said. “This is our resource, this is our life, this belongs to Hopi and Navajo – let’s find a better way for this resource to work for Hopi and Navajo.”

Nuvamsa said OSM as trustee cannot conduct government-to-government negotiations with the Hopi nation because “there is no official tribal council resolution in place” regarding the Black Mesa Project and the tribal council itself is in disarray and cannot take official action.

He also said he does not represent the Hopi tribal council because the council voted to suspend his authorities, but he does represent the Hopi and Tewa people “because they elected me to office and asked me to speak on their behalf.”

Because the tribal council is split, primarily over the Peabody mine issue, “we cannot take an official position as a tribe.”

Nuvamsa requested a delay in the permit approval until the new administration is sworn in, but said, “We are prepared to take further action if the Record of Decision is approved.” He questioned the need for haste, noting, “There is plenty of coal up to 2026” without Black Mesa Mine.

The meeting included Hopi and Navajo people who made a 12-hour trip to Denver by van; OSM officials, including Klein and Dennis Winterringer, leader, Black Mesa Project environmental impact statement; and a representative of the Department of Justice’s community relations division. A security guard was outside the room and police watched sign-carrying supporters on the sidewalk below.

OSM listened through the three-hour meeting, and Klein said near the end, “We as professional government employees are responsible for administering leases.When a coal company brings us a permit application – and if they have a lease – we must process that application.” He pointed to a thick book of regulations held by another employee.

“We don’t control the process – we have to make sure we fulfill these regulations,” he said, and noted that the agency is going forward with the Record of Decision, which allows the project to proceed.

At the outset, Enei Begay, a co-director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, Flagstaff, Ariz., read a statement drafted by the delegation to express united concern about the project and to represent families, clans and communities “to protect our shared land and water.”

Wahleah Johns, Navajo, of Horse Lake on Black Mesa, also a co-director of the Coalition, said hers is “a different way of life – we respect everything” including the mesa, which is “the female mountain within our four sacred mountains.”

Black Mesa “is alive, she’s breathing, but the elders are worried that she’s getting sick,” Johns said, noting that the Diné Hataalii (Navajo traditional practitioners) Association said the project will have a “devastating effect on the cultural survival to the future generations of both the Navajo and Hopi people.”

Esther Kootswatewa Honyestewa, Hopi, Hotevilla, Third Mesa, Ariz., handed Klein an ear of corn and said, “Maybe you can see what it’s like to be a farmer” as she is.

Water is part of birth and funeral customs for the Hopi, she said, and “maybe it’s nothing to you, but it means a lot to us.”

“We don’t have water in our homes, yet you’re taking our water to light up Los Angeles and Las Vegas,” Honyestewa said.

Dale Jackson, Hopi, Old Oraibi, Ariz., described the process as “really sickening,” and said “it should all be stopped.”

“We don’t want people to export coal to China and other countries,” he said. “The land is not for sale.”

The practical and cultural importance of water was stressed by most of the delegates, one of whom, Kevin Nash, Hopi, First Mesa, Ariz., said “It’s not about just waking up and taking a shower.” If the project was short of water for any reason, “they will fall back on Navajo Aquifer water and we don’t want any more used for mining purposes.”

Maxine Wadsworth, Hopi, Shungopavi, Ariz., said water from the springs on Black Mesa is critical for ceremonial use and “nothing will ever replace it.”She added, “You are asking us to make a decision on our lives – to deprive our children and our grandchildren,” a theme repeated by many of the participants who stressed planning for future generations.

Gloria Johns, of Horse Lake near a Peabody mining operation, decried “decisions you’ve already made” and said humans “were given the opportunity to speak on behalf of all that is created” but it is “hard for non-indigenous people to understand.”

Nuvamsa, who described years of working for the BIA, urged OSM officials to do as he had to do: “Look deep inside yourself and ask that question – is this decision going to be good for Tewa and Hopi? Because you have that responsibility.”

OSM was presented with a number of documents, including letters from Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and the Diné Hataalii Association, Lukachukai, Ariz. to Dirk Kempthorne, Secretary of the Interior, asking for a suspension of the Black Mesa Project approval process; letters and petitions from tribal members; and a resolution from the Hopi village of Tewa.

Scroll to Continue

Read More