The Green Divide meets tribal politics

KYKOTSMOVI, Ariz. – Political infighting in Hopi tribal affairs recently began focusing on an outside target – environmental giants regarded as enemies of the tribe’s collective pocketbook, aiding, if not causing, economic doom from a possible loss of coal mining money.

The controversy has gone inter-tribal, as well, with Navajo leadership weighing in on the dangers of environmentalism to tribal sovereignty.

Battle lines have been drawn over the last two years between Hopi factions including tribal leaders in favor of approving an expanded Peabody Western Coal Co. lease on Black Mesa and those who want greater tribal scrutiny and control. The tribal chairman and vice chairman resigned Jan. 1 and an interim government, under attack as to its legitimacy by its rivals, has ousted the Sierra Club and other environmentalists from Hopi tribal lands.

“We are proud of our longstanding partnerships with tribal leaders in the Southwest, and we are committed to supporting efforts to transition from dirty coal to clean energy solutions.” - Allison Chin, Sierra Club president

Hopi tribal government unanimously voted Sept. 28 to declare the environmental groups “persona non grata,” contending they “have worked diligently to deprive the tribe of markets for its coal resources” and revenue necessary to maintain tribal salaries and operations.

Other ousted groups were the 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 Hopi reservation,” according to a tribal press release.

Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. said that he, too, disapproved of environmentalists whose “only goal is to stop the use of coal” in the U.S. and on Navajo lands.

“We are proud of our longstanding partnerships with tribal leaders in the Southwest, and we are committed to supporting efforts to transition from dirty coal to clean energy solutions,” said Allison Chin, Sierra Club president.

“For decades, Southwestern tribes have suffered from poisoned groundwater, air pollution, and sacred land destruction caused by coal mines and power plants,” states the joint news release issued Oct. 1 by Native and non-Native spokespersons for the Sierra Club, Hopi Organizational Political Initiative – H.O.P.I., Grand Canyon Trust and Black Mesa Water Coalition.

“The Navajo Nation’s recent unanimous green jobs resolution and the solar power projects in the Hopi village of Hotevilla are strong signs that clean energy solutions are gaining momentum.”

Scott Canty, Hopi tribal counsel, fired back that the environmental organizations work with tribal nations “only on terms set by the environmental organizations” that “will continue to blindly pursue their agenda without any real regard to the sovereignty or legitimate economic interests of the Hopi Tribe.”

The green technologies touted “will not replace Hopi coal dollars any time within the foreseeable future,” he said. “The technologies are very expensive and economic feasibility remains questionable without huge government subsidies.”

Photo courtesy Hopi Organizational Political Initiative Alph Secakuku

No one has “rushed in to fill the economic void left in the Hopi economy by closure of the Mohave Generating Station,” and they will not, he said, apparently discounting rumors that its reopening might be attempted.

Canty said Peabody’s permit from the Office of Surface Mining for expanded mining on Black Mesa in northern Arizona should be upheld in a federal hearing since an adverse decision “would devastate the tribe.” Coal revenues were estimated to provide more than half the Hopi Tribe’s approximately $20 million annual income and operating budget or, in more recent estimates, about 71 percent of its general operating revenue alone.

In 2008, OSM approved an extended permit on 100 square miles of Hopi and Navajo lands, allowing the renewed mining of about 5,590 acres of remaining coal at Black Mesa. The mining complex includes Kayenta Mine, which supplies coal to the currently operating Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, and Black Mesa Mine, which supplied Nevada’s defunct Mohave Generating Station.

Ben Nuvamsa, former tribal chairman, said Canty’s economic predictions are “a scare tactic,” noting that Kayenta Mine has adequate coal supplies at least through 2026.

The Hopi, as owners, “should be able to impose taxes on Peabody for the reserves they would have in their control and when they mined the coal,” he said, adding “we should no longer stand on the sidelines and watch as Peabody takes control of our precious resources.”

Nuvamsa said he welcomes the current developments as a way for “the truth to come out. There are bigger corporate interests that have huge financial motives behind this issue.”

For both tribes, pocketbook and preservation issues are at loggerheads.

Environmental groups’ concerns about emissions-caused pollution contributed to publicity about the need for costly emission-control measures at the Mojave Generating Station, which then closed. Environmental organizations have also questioned the role of Navajo Generating Station emissions in dirtying the skies over the Grand Canyon, proposing it should be required to reduce emissions.

Shirley said environmentalists “led to the demise of Navajo logging and the closure of our sawmill” in New Mexico and, despite support of the Navajo Nation Council, “are doing all they can to prevent the development of the Desert Rock Energy Project.”

Major environmental groups question key conclusions in environmental studies required for OSM’s expansion of the Black Mesa coal mining permit. They include the Sierra Club, NRDC, and Black Mesa Water Coalition, all of which allege OSM violated six federal laws, including NEPA and the Endangered Species Act, when it approved the extended permit.