Zuni Salt Lake mining okayed

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. ? Resignation tinged Zuni Pueblo Lt. Governor Barton Martze's voice for only a moment.

"Now it looks like Zuni has lost another fight," Barton began his address to the over 50 tribal leaders and involved parties gathered at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (IPCC), July 16, for a 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."

Barton and leaders from Taos Pueblo, the All Indian Pueblo Council, the Zuni Salt Lake Coalition and the Sierra Club spoke against a recent federal approval to Arizona's largest utility, Salt River Project (SRP), to begin an 18,000-acre coal strip mining operation near the Zuni Salt Lake in western New Mexico.

The press conference was timed to garner public support to fight the future mining and to highlight Zuni Pueblo Governor Malcolm Bowekaty's appearance before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on July 17 in Washington.

Bowekaty testified against SRP's mining plans and expressed his disappointment with a federal government that he charged is failing in its trust responsibility to protect Native American sacred sites.

SRP has been approved to mine 80.1 million tons of coal over the next 50 years, according to SRP's mining plan, which was approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), Land and Minerals Management Assistant Secretary Rebecca W. Watson in May.

Coal will be mined from an area 11 miles northeast of Zuni Salt Lake, designated the Fence Lake Mine, to replace the dwindling coal supply presently mined from McKinley Mine near Gallup, N.M.

The coal will then be shipped via a 44-mile railroad, still to be built, to the SRP Coronado Generating Station near St. John, Ariz. that supplies power to nearly 190,000 customers living in Phoenix.

Proposed mining plans concern Zuni Pueblo members because the Zuni Salt Lake is a sacred site and has been a source of salt for ceremonial and domestic use for the Pueblo and for other tribes in the southwest for centuries. The Zuni say the mine will also destroy ancient trails and sacred burial sites.

The lake is central to the Zuni Pueblo's religion.

Another issue is to what degree SRP's pumping water from an underlying aquifer, to reduce coal dust, will diminish the water and salt in the Zuni Salt Lake. The New Mexico Coal Mine Program already determined that the draining of the originally proposed Dakota Aquifer would not affect the lake.

"That was a long hard battle," said Dan Simplicio, councilman for the Zuni Tribe. "We had dueling hydrologists," he said.

Simplicio said that the Zuni hired an hydrologist from the University of New Mexico to look into the possible damage that might be caused by pumping water from the Dakota Aquifer, while SRP hired Duke Engineering to dispute any impact claims.

The Dakota Aquifer is only four feet deep and directly feeds the Zuni Salt Lake. While the Zuni hydrologist concluded there would be extensive harm, the SRP hydrologist claimed no damage would occur.

The Zuni Pueblo won this argument and special provisions in the approved SRP plan include prohibition of water withdrawal from the Dakota Aquifer and its ongoing monitoring. Water monitoring reports from the Dakota aquifer will be provided to Zuni. Water withdrawal is planned from the Atarque Aquifer instead.

Other special provisions include development of a traditional cultural properties plan (TCP). Human remains encountered during excavation or discovery are to be treated in accordance with applicable laws.

"There are no federal laws for the protection of the hundreds of human remains," said Simplicio.

"That is the reason we had the conference at IPPC," he continued, "not only the hydrology but the cultural aspects, and that is why the governor was testifying in Washington."

The councilman explained that although the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) allows the return of remains, it does not protect them.

"Because of mitigation, (SRP) can remove and replace and we have to go through the whole NAGPRA process to get them back."

"Why can't we stop it before it starts?" Simplicio asked. He said there is only one option left in the Zuni efforts to stop the mine. He said the Pueblo is planning to go to federal court but hasn't made that decision yet.

Pablo Padilla, Zuni and organizer of the IPCC event, offered another answer. "We just don't buy that 'fact' that there's an energy crisis," he says. "Our simple answer is to turn off your lights for awhile, or stop running your cars."