Righteous Run

Native Americans protest water loss from mining company

Native American runners will set off Saturday on a grueling 200-mile course from the Hopi mesas to downtown Phoenix to protest more than three decades of groundwater pumping by the world's largest private coal company.

Marathon runners from Hopi, Acoma, Zuni and Navajo tribes will participate in the run that will reach Phoenix at 10 a.m. Tuesday, August 14. The runners will deliver a petition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs signed by more than 4,000 people opposing the use of groundwater by Peabody Coal Company to transport coal from its massive strip mine operations on Black Mesa in northeastern Arizona.

The protest run comes as the Bush administration's federal energy policy steps up efforts to extract more coal from western lands. Hopi leaders say Peabody Coal appears to be planning to boost coal production at Black Mesa that could increase the use of groundwater by more than one-third.

Peabody Coal Company mixes pulverized coal and 
pristine groundwater into a slurry that is injected into a 
pipeline that transports the coal 273 miles to a power 
plant in Laughlin, Nevada.
Timothy Archibald
Peabody Coal Company mixes pulverized coal and pristine groundwater into a slurry that is injected into a pipeline that transports the coal 273 miles to a power plant in Laughlin, Nevada.

Peabody Coal has been pumping water from beneath the Hopi and Navajo reservations for nearly 35 years. The pure water is mixed with pulverized coal into a slurry that is injected into a pipeline that transports the coal 273 miles to Laughlin, Nevada. There it is used in the Mohave Generating Station. Slurry lines are rarely used to transport coal in the United States. The fact that Peabody uses the method in one of the driest regions on Earth is startling.

More than 122,000 acre-feet of groundwater have been pumped by Peabody Coal. (An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot, or 325,851 gallons; it is also estimated to be the amount of water used by a family of four in a year.)

Former Hopi Tribal Chairman Vernon Masayesva has worked for more than a decade to reduce Peabody Coal's use of groundwater.

Masayesva is now director of the Black Mesa Trust, which is sponsoring the run and has funded several hydrogeological studies of the aquifer including a report released last year by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The NRDC report recommended that Peabody should cease groundwater pumping no later than 2005.

Masayesva says Peabody should find another way to transport the coal and leave the groundwater for the benefit of the Hopi and Navajo people living in the arid region.

"Water will dominate this century as oil dominated the 20th century. In direct opposition to the effort to privatize water, indigenous people believe that water is for all living things -- and it must be kept that way," says Masayesva.

Peabody says it has legal rights to the water and has conducted its own water studies that indicate the company is having a negligible impact on the aquifer.

The Hopi tribe has received more than $100 million in royalties from the mining company over the past 10 years. Many Hopi, however, contend that Peabody's groundwater pumping is drying up springs and washes. And that in turn is ruining the tribe's spiritual link to its past and its hope for the future.

The sandstone beneath Black Mesa, which is called the Navajo aquifer, is a reservoir for as much as 300 million acre-feet of water. But only a fraction of this amount can be withdrawn by wells or will ever flow naturally through springs and washes.

In the early 1960s, Peabody signed leases with the Hopi and Navajo tribes that allowed the company to prospect and mine coal on more than 100 square miles of Black Mesa.

The company discovered one of the richest coal deposits in the world and it has exclusive rights to it. By the early 1970s, Peabody had built one of the largest coal strip mines in the United States. The company signed long-term coal contracts with two power plants built in the early '70s to sate the power needs of fast-growing Southwestern cities, particularly Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

One of those contracts is with Southern California Edison's Mohave Generating Station. Peabody could have transported the coal to Laughlin by truck or rail. But the company also knew that Black Mesa sat atop the wet Navajo sandstone. Engineers decided that the cheapest way to transport millions of tons of coal each year to Nevada was to mix the coal with groundwater and inject the mix into an underground pipeline.

Peabody draws water from eight wells dug deeply into the thickest section of the Navajo aquifer; Peabody sucks 4,000 acre-feet of water each year from the ground.

New Times reported several years ago that once the pumping began, the Navajo aquifer was thrown out of balance ("Dark Days on Black Mesa," April 29, 1997) because natural discharges and well withdrawals exceeded any recharge. Peabody, however, says the amount of water it is withdrawing is small in comparison to the size of the aquifer. The company says less than one-tenth of one percent of the aquifer will be used by the mining operations.

The Hopi contend that because their villages are located at the southern edge of Black Mesa, above a considerably narrower portion of the Navajo aquifer, Peabody's withdrawals are drying up water sources that were reliable in the past.

The Hopi tribe has complained for years to the Department of Interior that the slurry line at Black Mesa is a waste of water.

In 1993, the tribe sent a letter to former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt noting that the Peabody pipeline "is the only instance in American history where coal has been transported with groundwater, let alone pristine groundwater that represents the only source of drinking water for an Indian Tribe."

The Black Mesa Trust will host a reception for the runners at 6 p.m. Tuesday, August 14, at the Intertribal Council of Arizona offices, 2214 North Central.

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