Wisdom of the Ancestors

I first met former Hopi tribal chairman Vernon Masayesva in December 1992, when my then-wife and I were publishing a weekly newspaper in Flagstaff.

Masayesva called one afternoon and said he wanted to tell me a story of great importance to his tribe. A few days later, we met at a restaurant in old downtown Flagstaff.

Over the next few hours, Masayesva spun an amazing tale of the Hopis' battle with the world's largest coal mining company over the tribe's most important natural resource: water.


Vernon Masayesva

It's tempting to dismiss tales of corporate rape in Indian country as another sappy song pandering to our guilt over America's treatment of the Indian nations that once occupied this land. But Masayesva never played that card.

Instead, he dispassionately laid out the facts of his case while making it clear he was committed to protecting the oldest continuous culture in North America. Hopi fortunes have ebbed and flowed on the arid mesas northeast of Flagstaff for thousands of years.

The Hopi society, Masayesva said, is based on its intimate relationship with water. The tribe's songs, dances, art, secret ceremonies, language, economy and religion all revolve around water.

But in modern times, Masayesva explained at the restaurant, water on Hopi land was seriously threatened. And if the water that for ages has flowed from washes, springs and seeps (which nurtures corn, beans, squash and souls) disappears, so, too, would the Hopi.

It was that simple to him.

You may be thinking this is an old story, but it is far from it. It is an ongoing tale that affects Arizona and Phoenix, and there are striking new developments. But first a little history on the Hopi vs. Peabody Coal Company (now Peabody Energy):

The threat to Hopi water began when Peabody obtained leases to mine coal on Hopi and Navajo land in the 1960s, Masayesva said. There were 100 square miles of low-sulfur coal reserves on the reservations, perfect for fueling power plants needed to feed the growth frenzy and economic bonanza sweeping the Southwest.

Coal from Peabody's Black Mesa Mine was sold to the Mohave Generating Station operated by Southern California Edison near what was then the remote outpost of Laughlin, Nevada. Rather than trucking or shipping the coal by rail, Peabody decided to build the world's longest water-slurry pipeline to move five million tons a year of pulverized coal 273 miles from the Black Mesa Mine to the 1,580-megawatt power plant.

Peabody began pumping 4,000 acre-feet [an acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons] of pristine drinking water a year from beneath Black Mesa. The water was mixed with the crushed coal and injected into the slurry pipeline. The water taken from beneath Hopi land was initially sold to Peabody for the astonishingly low price of $1.67 per acre-foot.

Peabody essentially stole the Hopis' water. And the company did so with the approval of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. This theft of the tribe's water, Masayesva said, was just the beginning of a massive rip-off of the Hopis' natural resources.

The heist went unnoticed by the outside world. In fact, the coal and water spirited off the Hopi reservation over the next 40 years helped fuel the spectacular economic growth of Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

The wealth and riches of the cities came at a huge cost to the Hopi. Within two decades, Masayesva said, Hopi farmers and spiritual leaders noticed a precipitous decline in the amount of water flowing from Hopi springs, washes and seeps. Peabody denied that its groundwater pumping had any effect on the surface flow, claiming that it was taking water from the deep Navajo Aquifer that was not connected to the surface.

But Masayesva told me that he and other Hopi leaders were convinced there was a connection between groundwater pumping and reduced surface flows. Masayesva said the risk to Hopi culture was too great to ignore.

"I really want us to go back to honor, respect and trust [in] the ancient wisdom, go back to our relationship with water," Masayesva said. "Water is sacred."

Our dinner concluded and we went our separate ways. Masayesva's term as Hopi tribal chairman ended in 1994, but he continued his lonely fight to force Peabody to stop mining groundwater.

In early 1997, Masayesva called me again with startling information that had been recently discovered by a law professor researching the history of the Peabody coal mining operations on Hopi land. By this time I was working at New Times.

Professor Charles Wilkinson of the University of Colorado had discovered documents that revealed the Hopi were betrayed by the tribe's most trusted attorney who had negotiated the original Peabody coal and water contracts on the tribe's behalf.

"[John] Boyden violated his high duty to the Hopi by working concurrently for Peabody Coal during the decisive years of the mid-1960s," Wilkinson wrote in a lengthy paper published in the Brigham Young University Law Review in 1996.

Boyden was double-dealing. He was working for Peabody at the same time he was representing the Hopi in negotiations to sell coal and water to Peabody. The deal Boyden struck enriched Peabody while forcing the Hopi to be dependent on paltry coal royalties.

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.

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.

Masayesva maintains that closing the power plant also opens the door to a tremendous opportunity for the Hopi to transform its reservation into an economic powerhouse based on renewable energy. He's already helped establish the Colorado Plateau Clean Energy Initiative that is seeking to develop clean energy sources, including wind farms, solar and coal gasification.

The Black Mesa Trust is working with Phoenix-based Stirling Energy Systems to design and build two 500-megawatt solar-electric-generating stations on the Hopi and Navajo reservations.

Earlier this year, Stirling signed contracts to build two separate solar-generating stations of similar size with Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric Company. The Hopi/Navajo plants would cost about $1.6 billion, take two to four years to build and employ between 500 and 1,000 workers during construction.

While dark days still loom in the immediate future on Black Mesa with the imminent closure of the mine, it appears that the future for the Hopi is exceedingly bright, thanks to the vision of Vernon Masayesva.

"I have done my best," he told me. "I have accomplished what I set out to accomplish, which was to stop [groundwater] pumping."

In the early years of this epic struggle, Masayesva walked alone. One man versus the world's largest coal company. Now, miraculously, victory is at hand.

"There are lessons to be learned that I would like to share with the outside world," Masayesva said. "Never doubt the power and wisdom of our ancestors. That is how we made the difference with Peabody."

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