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Zuni battle for sacred site a win - prevents coal strip mine development

ZUNI PUEBLO, N.M. - Zuni people stood up for cultural values and won the struggle to protect Salt Mother and the Zuni Salt Lake from damage from a proposed coal strip mine that spanned two decades.

In a surprise vote recently, the Salt River Project's (SRP) board of directors decided to abandon its plans to develop the proposed Fence Lake mine and relinquish permits and coal leases; purchasing coal from other sources instead.

"It was financial reasons," said Jeff Lane, SRP spokesman.

"The coal market has become much softer than it was over the period of years we've been studying this project and financially for us, it's beneficial to enter into a long-term coal contract, than to invest in the infrastructure of building a mine and a railroad. Right now, with a competitive market, we were able to get a favorable offer from one of the companies in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming," said Lane.

"It's an example of what can be done if we all pull together and be of like minds and hearts, our spirits together," said Cal Seciwa, Zuni and a founding member of The Zuni Salt Lake Coalition (ZSLC).

"I hope we serve as a model of things that can be achieved - even as challenging and daunting as we had, in the area of the whole scheme of sacred sites - we do have victory," continued Seciwa who originally heard about the decision from televised news reports.

Just over a year earlier victory seemed only the wisp of a dream. Zuni Pueblo leaders and leaders from Taos Pueblo, the All Indian Pueblo Council, the ZSLC and the Sierra Club held a press conference at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center to publicize the federal approval for SRP to begin an 18,000-acre coal strip mining operation near the Zuni Salt Lake in Western New Mexico.

The event highlighted then Zuni Pueblo Governor Malcolm Bowekaty's appearance before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Bowekaty testified against SRP's plans and expressed his disappointment with a federal government failing in its trust responsibility to protect Native

American sacred sites.

SRP planned to mine 80.1 million tons of coal over 50 years, from an area 11 miles northeast of Zuni Salt Lake, to replace the dwindling coal supply from McKinley Mine near Gallup, N.M.

Coal would have been shipped via a 44-mile railroad to the SRP Coronado Generating Station near St. John, Ariz. to supply power to its nearly 190 thousand customers living in Phoenix.

"Now it looks like Zuni has lost another fight," then Zuni Pueblo Lt. Governor Barton Martze began his address during the press conference. "But with the (Salt Lake) Coalition and all of the interested agencies and individuals that are now coming to assist the Zuni tribe," Barton continued on a more dogged note, "I can only guarantee that the battle has just begun."

The battle began with ZSLC organizing the People's Hearing on Zuni Salt Lake where, according to a press release, over 500 people gathered in Zuni to offer testimony for the protection of Zuni Salt Lake.

ZSLC held 24-hr prayer runs around SRP headquarters, organized marches and rallies and pursued legal actions against the mine. The organization purchased multi-language radio ads, billboard trucks, solicited letters and support resolutions from the Inter-tribal Council of Arizona, the All-Indian Pueblo Council, National Congress of American Indians, and the New Mexico Council of Churches.

The New Mexico Congressional delegation sent a letter to Secretary of Interior Gale Norton asking her to stop the mining permit until pump tests on groundwater near the Zuni Salt Lake could be completed.

"Officially, according to the press release, it was economics," said Seciwa. It's probably true to an extent, but I couldn't help but feel they saw the political handwriting on the wall."

Seciwa said he felt that continuing development of the Fence Lake mine was becoming more challenging in terms of political pressures and public opinion for SRP and that the solidarity of the Zuni community convinced Arizona's largest utility to stop plans for the mine.

"We started to exercise our knowledge and our networking," said Seciwa.