Mining Clashed with Sacred Sites in 2010

DENVER – 2010 in the Mile High City area saw developments in coal and uranium extraction involving the Denver-based Western Area Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and other area federal offices and courts.

It saw related battles concerning the tension between sacred sites and cultural issues as they confronted pocketbook and development imperatives. Finally, high-profile free speech issues centered on Colorado’s controversial scholar of Native issues, Ward Churchill. Stories throughout the year chronicled these events.

Uranium developers eye Indian lands

With the price of uranium easing upward and uranium mining banned by tribal law on rich reserves inside the Navajo Nation, uranium companies looked to adjacent “checkerboard” areas in northwestern New Mexico, where private, public and Indian lands are interspersed. Hydro Resources Inc. in three years of litigation before the 10th Circuit Court won against the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining and others and plans to conduct in situ leach mining in predominantly Indian Church Rock and Crownpoint communities, despite fears that the process will contaminate aquifers from which drinking water is obtained. The U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 15 refused an appeal, and HRI said its Nuclear Regulatory Commission license allows it to produce up to a million pounds of uranium per year. The Church Rock area is the site of a million-gallon spill of toxic uranium-mining wastewater into a nearby river three decades ago.

Coal mining and power generation trigger dissent

Navajo Mine, the sprawling, open-pit sole supplier of coal for the Four Corners Power Plant near Farmington, NM, found its planned expansion on Navajo Nation tribal lands stymied by a Denver U.S. District Court judge, who ruled that OSM’s Western Area Office failed to adequately analyze potential environmental and cultural impacts as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. Diné and other citizens’ groups also questioned the alleged disposal of some 1.6 million tons per year of coal combustion waste from the power plant into unlined, mined-out coal pits. The mine and power plant contribute millions of dollars annually to Navajo Nation coffers.

Four Corners Power Plant, the mine-mouth generation station operated by Arizona Public Service Company encountered its own problems when the Environmental Protection Agency in October ordered it to install stringent and costly pollution controls to reduce by 80 percent the haze that has clouded the Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde National Parks and other scenic areas, as well as caused health concerns among Navajos and other area residents. Shutting down three older units may reduce the plant’s demand for Navajo Mine coal by a third. The 45-year-old coal-fired power plant has been the nation’s largest source of nitrous oxides emissions.

Black Mesa in northern Arizona and its preservation have been of concern to Hopi, Tewa and Navajo people for at least 75 years, and 2010 was no exception as opponents of Peabody Coal Co. (now Peabody Energy) coal lease on Black Mesa continued to fight the expansion of its giant strip mine. The change was approved by OSM’s Western Area Office in early 2010, but a federal administrative law judge said that Peabody violated environmental laws when it failed to prepare a supplemental impact statement after its expansion plan was altered. The mining issue intensified political infighting on the Hopi Tribal Council and raised conflict over pocketbook priorities and cultural concerns.

Sacred sites lose to economic priorities

San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, Ariz., sacred to more than 13 area tribes, lost out to a private ski resort on Forest Service lands when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave its approval for artificial snowmaking on the slopes using 1.5 million gallons per day of reclaimed sewage water and other wastewater. Although opponents were still hoping for an injunction based on health concerns, the Navajo Nation and others were appealing to the international community for U.N. intervention to halt the desecration. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to consider the issue.

Black Mesa, in addition to being a focus of controversy over the economic forces plying its coal resources, remains the subject of concern because of its cultural and sacred importance to Hopi, Tewa and Navajo people. The mining operations, which have used vast amounts of water from underlying aquifers, disregard Hopi tradition that centers on water and the springs that provide water for ceremonial uses, spokespeople have said, and other cultural sites are affected. Diné opponents point out that Black Mesa is the female mountain within the four sacred mountains of the Navajo Nation.

Ancestral lands and sacred sites of some Paiute, Shoshone and Klamath tribal nations in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon were of concern when construction began on $3 billion Ruby Pipeline slated to carry oil and gas from the Rocky Mountain area to the West Coast at a rate of 1.5 billion cubic feet per day. The natural gas- and oil-producing Ute tribes in Colorado and Utah conditioned their support on the project’s being culturally respectful, but some members of affected tribes said the proposed right-of-way crosses aboriginal prayer sites, hunting and gathering areas, gravesites and other areas of cultural patrimony.

Controversial scholar seeks legal remedy

Ward Churchill, who has written extensively on Native issues, continued in 2010 to contest his 2007 firing from a tenured position in the ethnic studies department at the University of Colorado. The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that CU’s investigation into his scholarship did not constitute an adverse employment action in retaliation for his exercising his First Amendment rights and that CU Regents enjoyed immunity from lawsuits. Earlier, Churchill unsuccessfully sought reversal of a lower court judge who threw out a jury’s verdict that Churchill’s firing was in retaliation for his political statements condemning U.S. foreign policy after 9/11 and not, as CU alleged, for scholarly misconduct. He may petition the U.S. Supreme Court early next year.