For the sake of a deliberate and balanced approached to mining, indigenous rights, and environmental concerns, let’s hope U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva takes the reins at the Department of the Interior in Obama’s administration.
Take this week’s startling announcement that the George W. Bush administration might quietly give the green light to reopening the scandalous Black Mesa Strip Mine on the ancestral lands of the Dine (Navajo) and Hopi.
Within a few days, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining will release a "Record of Decision" on the "Black Mesa Project" Final Environmental Impact Statement, which could ultimately grant the Peabody Coal Company a "Life-of-Mine" permit to re-open and expand one of the nation’s largest coal strip mines.
Like a voice in the wilderness, Grijalva recently wrote the current Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne to request a suspension in the OSM’s "hurriedly conducting a deeply flawed environmental review."
Despite a Hopi tribal government in disarray and a deeply divided Dine-Navajo community, the George W. Bush administration’s 11th hour move to unleash Big Coal in the tribal lands will not only jeopardize the Navajo Aquifer — the main source of drinking water for the area residents and farmers — but will re-open one of the bitter wounds in contemporary tribal conflict.
Like mountaintop removal in Appalachia, the decades-long battle over Black Mesa and the ensuing Hopi-Navajo Settlement sybolizes shameless disregard of human rights and environmental protection for the sake of extraction industry profits.
It’s an old story, of course, dating back to the discovery of one of the largest coal deposits in the country on Black Mesa over a century ago.
Over a decade ago, documents emerged that proved that the main lawyer hired to represent the divided Hopi was also on the payroll of the Peabody Coal Company and might have actually helped gerrymander the massive land deal and subsequent settlement acts. This not only resulted in unfair royalty payments and virtually no environmental safeguards, but bitterly divided tribal interests and relations.
In the process, one report estimated that over 12,000 natives were forced to relocate while one of the largest strip mines in the nation swept across the northern Arizona desert.
As investigative reporter Judith Nies wrote:
In Los Angeles, air conditioners hummed. Las Vegas embarked on an enormous building spree to make gambling a family vacation. Phoenix and Tucson metastasized out into the desert-building golf courses and vast retirement developments with swimming pools and fountains. Few realize that much of the energy that makes the desert "bloom" comes from the Black Mesa strip mines on an Indian reservation. Even fewer know the true costs of such development.
And water, in this upland desert, was pumped away. As part of a 273-mile slurry line, billions of gallons of water were siphoned from the Navajo aquifer for decades. Not only the main water source for the native farmers and ranchers in the area, this caused wells and springs to dry up, groundwater levels to plummet and native vegetation to vanish.
According to native Black Mesa advocates today, the rammed through OSM report has numerous flaws, legal or otherwise:
• The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) does not address the pumping of the Navajo Aquifer for the last thirty years. These amounts exceed the aquifer’s ability to replace water annually, and have adversely impacted the natural springs and seeps all over Black Mesa. Springs no longer can produce the water needed for Navajo families to survive daily. Instead families must abandon local water resources and use community wells 20-30 miles over unimproved roads. Peabody has not included in its application the impact on the people of Black Mesa and how long they can expect to survive with continued use and contamination of the only source of drinking water the people have. Nor are measures in place to insure an alternate source of water in quality and quantity for local residents will be delivered if there is irreversible damage to the N-Aquifer;
• local Black Mesa residents have been inadequately informed of the proposed changes; • due to changes in the original alternatives, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) is outdated and has irrelevant information; • the DEIS mentions lung problems and only proposes mitigation for mine workers, not residents. The EIS must look at mitigation measures for local residents to avoid health problems associated with black lung, asthma and other lung ailments;
• the DEIS does not consider how the OSM will comply with the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, and prevent substantial burden on the tribes’ ability to practice their religion; • the DEIS does not compare the economics of additional coal mining vs. transitional renewable energy development on the mine site and reclaimed areas to prevent long-term cumulative impacts by additional coal mining; • the DEIS does not recognize the impact of the potential relocation of native families;
• the DEIS does not address the current U.S. federal laws that make CO2 a pollutant, and uncalculated CO2 emissions that will contribute to global warming until 2026, if more mining by Peabody coal company continues.
Last month, Rep. Grijalva asked for delay until the OSM "can determine the actual purpose and need of this project."
Let’s hope the OSM heeds his sound advice.