November 05, 2001

Indians Vs. Miners

The Hopi and the Navajo take on the country's largest coal miner over scarce and sacred water


Old Oraibi, which dates its origins to about 1150, is considered the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the U.S., and when you visit the haunting mesas that surround it, you quickly see why people would gather at this spot. It's got water. Or rather it had water. The ancient wells are drying up.

The Hopi Indians have hung eagle prayer feathers in threatened wells and springs across their sprawling reservation in northeastern Arizona in hope that the water will return and that the drought of recent years will break. But many believe a shortage of rain is only part of the problem.

Gilbert Naseyowna, 76, has been tending sheep and cattle all his life but has only recently had to haul water to his livestock above his village of Moenkopi, where a healthy spring used to flow. "That's why I know the water has disappeared," he says simply. "Something's wrong with the aquifer. I think it's the pumping."

Naseyowna and many of the 11,156 other residents of the reservation, along with a roughly equal number of neighboring Navajo, blame their dry springs and receding wells on Peabody Energy, which pumps 1.3 billion gal. of pristine water a year--enough to supply a community of 4,000 households--out of an ancient sandstone aquifer that lies beneath the Hopi and Navajo lands. Peabody claws coal out of land leased from the tribes at a site known as Black Mesa and pulverizes it into powder. The company then mixes the coal with water and pumps it through a pipeline 273 miles west to the Mohave Generating Station, which produces electricity for 1.5 million homes in nearby Las Vegas and Southern California.

Peabody, the world's largest private coal company, has used the slurry pipeline to move its coal since 1970. Traditionalists in the Hopi tribe have complained that both the coal mining and water pumping violate their religious obligation to act as guardians of the land and its water, which Naseyowna calls "the blood of the earth." The dispute has heated up in recent months as concern over the springs and wells has grown--and as deadlines approach for key negotiations between Peabody and the Mohave power plant.

Peabody's fuel-supply contract with the Mohave Generating Station ends in 2005. But the power plant is required to start installing scrubbers on its smokestacks before then, and its executives do not want to spend $400 million on that project unless the Hopi water problem is resolved. Either Washington gives Peabody permission to pump aquifer water for the life of the mine, which could be an additional 15 years, or an alternative water source must be found for the slurry pipeline. "We have to decide by next year," says Nader Mansour, manager for environmental regulations for Southern California Edison, one of the owners of the Mohave plant. "We're looking at switching to natural gas."

Peabody executives have stepped up efforts to reach an agreement since June, when CEO Irl Engelhardt, 54, met with Hopi and Navajo leaders in Flagstaff, Ariz. "We're not happy about the continuing controversy over the water," says Fred Palmer, a Peabody executive vice president. "We'd like to see it resolved."

The Natural Resources Defense Council last year funded a hydrological study of the aquifer that found the water level in some of the Hopi wells had fallen 100 ft. since mining began, and the flows from most of its springs had been reduced 50%. Peabody cites its own extensive studies and argues that the water it draws from the aquifer is comparable to dipping "half a beverage can out of a 55-gal. drum." But Palmer says that Peabody "does accept that the aquifer has religious significance."

The aquifer and the coal also have huge economic significance for the tribe. Payments from Peabody account for three-fourths of the tribal council's $19 million annual budget, which pays for services like schools and health clinics and salaries for about 500 council employees. Hopi tribal chairman Wayne Taylor Jr. bluntly concedes that "basically, we don't have an economy. We've become dependent on the Peabody income."

Taylor has been working with Peabody for years to try to find another source of water for the slurry pipeline--perhaps Lake Powell, some 60 miles northwest on the Colorado River. But that solution would cost about $106 million, and powerful interests oppose any further claims on the Colorado's waters.

Why not just ship the coal by rail to the Mohave power plant--the same way Peabody already ships coal from Black Mesa to a power plant near Lake Powell? There is no direct rail line to the Mohave plant, and the cost of building one, says Peabody's Palmer, "would be prohibitive."

Complicating efforts to settle the water dispute is its sordid history. The initial deals between Peabody and the Hopi during the 1960s, on much worse terms than similar deals elsewhere, were negotiated by a lawyer, John Boyden, who died in 1980. He claimed to represent the controversial tribal council of the day, which paid him a $1 million fee--even as he secretly represented Peabody's interests. Says University of Colorado law professor Charles Wilkinson: "It's as outrageous a scenario as we've seen in Western resource development."

Peabody's current management says it wants a deal that is fair to all parties. To achieve that, however, Palmer says, "we need help from Congress and the White House." In both places, Peabody should be able to command a respectful hearing. It contributed $250,000 to the Republican National Committee during the 1999-2000 campaign, and Engelhardt gave $100,000 to the Bush-Cheney Inaugural fund.


For another article about this issue be sure to check out