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Resource concerns transcend tribal boundaries

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BLACK MESA, Ariz. – Potential environmental threats have sparked intertribal efforts to protect air, water and mineral resources that underlie or cross the jurisdictional boundaries of Navajo and Hopi lands in northern Arizona.

Inter-Tribal COALition has been forming over the last six months to address coal mining, air and water quality, and now carbon sequestration issues on the two tribes’ lands, representing area residents, former tribal officials, and others who dispute some of the Navajo and Hopi tribal councils’ official positions on the use and preservation of natural resources.

Former Hopi Chairman Ben Nuvamsa and former Navajo Nation President Milton Bluehouse Sr. have joined with others under the Inter-Tribal COALition banner to confront an experimental carbon capture and storage (CCS) project on Hopi lands and the use of effluent water for artificial snowmaking at the Snow Bowl Ski Resort on the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Ariz.

The joint effort transcends longtime, lingering animosities among some individuals from both tribes stemming from relocations and losses of land when the jurisdictional boundaries of the Navajo and Hopi reservations were redrawn over the years by the federal government, responding in part to mining interests eyeing the vast coal resources of Black Mesa.

“What we’re trying to do here is to recognize that our problems are common – both tribes, Hopi and Navajo,” Bluehouse said, while Nuvamsa pointed out that under the collaboration, “Together we hold all the cards – the utility companies will have to listen to us. We hold a very important negotiating position.”

Issues came to a head at a coalition-sponsored public forum at Hotevilla, Ariz. Aug. 6, which focused on CCS, snowmaking on San Francisco Peaks, and other topics.

Among forum invitees were Nada Talayumptewa, chair of the Hopi Water and Energy Team, and Joelynn Roberson, who has been a consultant to the team, neither of whom returned requests for comment. Talayumptewa supported the use of groundwater for snowmaking and sponsored the tribal council resolution that approved a CCS project.

Criticism has been ongoing of the ski resort’s snowmaking operation on mountains sacred to a number of area tribes, but opposition to the CCS project arose after the tribal council approved it July 19 “without providing for full input from tribal members and tribal staff, and without the concurrence of the Navajo Nation,” according to the coalition.

The project provides for test drilling at a depth of 7,000 to 9,000 feet in the Black Mesa Basin on Hopi lands near a Navajo community to determine whether the geologic formation is suitable for storing carbon dioxide emissions from nearby coal-fired power plants on the Colorado Plateau.

The Inter-Tribal COALition said the CCS project is proposed by WESTCARB, whose partners include Peabody Energy, which in turn operates strip mines on Black Mesa. Also included are the Salt River Project, Arizona Public Service, and Tucson Electric Power, operator or owners of Navajo Generating Station on the Navajo reservation, near Page, Ariz., which processes coal from Peabody mines to power cities in California, Arizona and Nevada.

A study of the Black Mesa Basin’s suitability for CCS was prepared in 2009 for the Department of Energy by the Salt River Project on behalf of the Hopi Tribe and proposed for funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, with its stated goal to “demonstrate that geologic conditions in the Black Mesa Basin are highly favorable for the safe, long-term storage of carbon dioxide emissions from nearby coal-fired power plants on the Colorado Plateau.”

Nuvamsa said the project recently approved by the Hopi Tribal Council is “a crafty way of getting data from our lands, and it may be another way for the utility companies to continue to emit pollution – this time not into the air, but down into the earth. We could become like a nuclear dump site.”

“The big thing among us is we don’t want to trash our back yard with all that junk,” Bluehouse said, but he noted that the new coalition is standing apart from outside interests, including environmental groups, because the Navajo Nation has a high unemployment rate and Navajos work at the mine and power plant.

The solar and wind power to replace coal-fired generation now sending electricity to Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas must be phased in, he said. “To go solar or wind, we have to have a plan, not just say it’s going to happen. It may take 10 years or so to acquire land, and design and construct. All of that needs to be looked at with a realistic approach.”

Material prepared for the tribal council in 2009 notes that the project could assist the Hopi Tribe in the potential economic use of carbon dioxide “for enhanced coal bed methane recovery or oil and gas development” and a regional geologic CCS site “will be vital to growing populations in the Southwest, particularly Arizona and California.”

A precursor to formal intertribal cooperation occurred when a group of Hopi/Tewa and Navajo tribal members affiliated with the Black Mesa Water Coalition confronted federal officials in 2008 over expanded strip mining atop Black Mesa under an Office of Surface Mining permit that was later vacated by a Department of the Interior administrative law judge.