Wisdom of the Ancestors

A Hopi leader fought a lonely battle to stop a mining company from stealing water that helped build Phoenix. He succeeded. Finally

Even worse, Boyden's deal was threatening to destroy the Hopis' crucial link to surface water flows.

I soon found myself touring the Hopi mesas with Masayesva and meeting with Hopi spiritual leaders who shared their songs and insight about water.

Masayesva had scraped up funds to help finance independent hydrological research that was providing support to the Hopis' contention that the groundwater pumping was depleting Hopi surface water. The U.S. Geological Survey was also conducting independent studies supporting the Hopis' concerns about groundwater reduction.

Former Hopi tribal chairman Vernon Masayesva
Former Hopi tribal chairman Vernon Masayesva

I broke the story about Boyden's betrayal of the Hopi in New Times ("Dark Days on Black Mesa," April 24, 1997), and soon Peabody was on the defensive. Masayesva founded a nonprofit organization, Black Mesa Trust, and began gathering national and international recognition and financial support.

Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental groups -- including the Grand Canyon Trust, the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association -- launched an attack on the recipient of Peabody's coal -- the Mohave Generating Station.

The environmental groups sued Mohave Generating Station's owners in 1998 alleging the power plant was in violation of clean-air standards. The power plant's owners were looking at the potential of billions of dollars in fines. (Southern California Edison owns 56 percent of the plant, followed by the Salt River Project, with 20 percent; Nevada Power Company, 14 percent; and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, 10 percent.)

Mohave's operators entered into a consent decree in 1999 with the environmental groups agreeing to either sharply reduce emissions at the power plant or shut it down by December 31, 2005. Mohave's owners, led by Southern California Edison, were then faced with a crucial decision:

Were they willing to invest $1 billion worth of improvements necessary to clean up the power plant's emissions while at the same time continuing to rely on Peabody's controversial coal slurry pipeline that appeared to be depleting springs on the Hopi reservation?

Masayesva saw an opportunity to bring tremendous pressure on the utilities, as well as on Peabody. He enlisted the help of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a powerful environmental group, as well as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his Waterkeeper Alliance.

The pressure on Peabody to find another way to transport the coal to Mohave became so great that the company finally announced it would find another water source for the pipeline by the end of this year.

"Because of the international uproar over what they were doing, Peabody was losing a big public relations war," Masayesva told me the other day. "They agreed voluntarily that they would cease using the Navajo Aquifer."

So far, Peabody has been unable to find an alternative water source for its pipeline. But it increasingly appears that it doesn't matter because it is virtually certain that Mohave will shut down this December 31 rather than install anti-pollution controls.

The imminent closure of the power plant also means Peabody will close the Black Mesa Mine. Hundreds of jobs will be lost not only at the power plant but at the mine.

The Hopi Tribe is expected to lose about $7 million a year in royalties -- which accounts for about one-third of the tribe's annual operating budget. The news of the closure of the mine and power plant is being portrayed as a devastating financial blow to northern Arizona and, particularly, to the Hopi. The Arizona Republic ran an October 30 story with the ominous headline: "Power plant shutdown bringing gloom to N. Arizona."

Masayesva says there is no need for panic. Far from it.

"The Hopi Tribe has $100 million in liquid assets," he says.

The assets, Masayesva says, come from a land-dispute settlement the Hopi reached with the federal government in the mid-1990s that allows some Navajo to remain on Hopi land. The Hopi have invested the money in real estate and businesses.

"There is no need for the Hopi Tribe to be saying they are going to suffer grievously economically," Masayesva says.

The Hopi and Navajo also have an opportunity to obtain significant financial relief from Mohave's closure. Under complex air-pollution-control rules, Mohave's owners will reap a huge windfall after they close the plant through the annual sale of tens of millions of dollars' worth of sulfur-dioxide-emission credits.

Environmentalists want regulators to force the utilities to provide the money derived from the sale of pollution tax credits to the tribes and others who will need financial assistance.

"The owners [of Mohave] should provide economic transition funds to the tribes, and have the money to do so," the environmental groups said in a May 25 letter to the Hopi Tribe.

Masayesva argues that the federal and state governments should also contribute funds to the Hopi and Navajo tribes to soften the financial blow from the closure of the mine. Arizona, which has a huge budget surplus, has benefited immensely from the mine and power plant. The state has received more than $20 million a year in taxes generated by the mine, and the state's entire economy has benefited from low-cost power generated for decades at the Mohave Generating Station.

In addition, the federal government has a responsibility to compensate the Hopi for failing in its trust responsibility to protect the tribe's resources by approving the unfavorable water and coal contracts negotiated by Boyden.

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