Pollution conflict triggers added tribal hearings


BLACK MESA, Ariz. – Opponents of increased coal mining on this massive site in northern Arizona were encouraged by the disclosure Dec. 3 that the Environmental Protection Agency has withdrawn a water permit and has ended, at least temporarily, concern about mining-related runoff into inadequate treatment ponds.

Black Mesa Water Coalition had appealed the water permit issued to Peabody Western Coal Co. on grounds that it violated the Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and Endangered Species Act, and that it “failed to adequately analyze the environmental impacts of leaky waste ponds and failed to provide local residents with adequate opportunities for public participation,” according to a press release.

The EPA’s Southwest Regional office said by phone that the permit in question was a stormwater permit entering a routine five-year renewal period and was not flawed, but that the agency had decided to hold two additional public hearings on Navajo and Hopi tribal lands to accommodate further public comment.

The permit governs rain and snow runoff from mining areas that flows through washes into treatment ponds and “there is an issue with seeps” onto the surrounding land, an EPA spokesman said, asserting that the runoff does not contain toxic mine waste or other major pollutants.

Under an expanded permit issued a year ago by the Office of Surface Mining, Peabody could mine nearly 6,000 acres of remaining coal on Navajo and Hopi lands at Black Mesa, site of a massive strip mine that currently supplies the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz.

The OSM permit extension, contested fiercely by opponents from various sectors, also involved water issues but is not directly related to the current controversy, according to EPA.

Opponents to the stormwater permit, however, disagree that it does not involve major pollutants and instead contend that it is polluting the region’s natural water system, where “the Black Mesa Mine Complex has a history of controversy stemming from concerns about air and water pollution, impacts to local people, the drying of aquifers and springs and coal pollution’s contribution to global warming,” according to the coalition press release.

Stormwater runoff and pond seeps “including selenium, nitrates, and other heavy metals and toxic pollutants from coal mining operations at the Black Mesa Complex are threatening washes, tributaries, groundwater and the drinking water for local communities but are not being regulated,” it states.

“EPA is to be commended for doing the right thing in this instance and withdrawing the inadequate water permit for Black Mesa,” said Wahleah Johns, co-chair of the Black Mesa Water Coalition. “Our community was shut out of the permitting process and our requests for public hearings on the permit denied. If a new permit is issued, the agency must ensure that impacted communities are meaningfully involved in environmental decision-making.”

No dates have been set for the public hearings on Navajo and Hopi lands concerning the permit renewal, but scheduling is expected within the next couple of weeks, EPA said.

The organizations objecting to the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit renewal includes the Coalition, To’ Nizhoni Ani (“Beautiful Water Speaks,”) Diné CARE, Diné Hataalii Association Inc., Diné Alliance, C-Aquifer for Diné, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club. NPDES permits target point-source releases such as constructed pipes or ditches.