Earlier this week, Native Americans and environmentalists won a surprising victory when a power company abandoned plans to build a highly controversial coal mine in New Mexico.

Zuni Salt Lake.

Photo: Zuni Salt Lake Coalition.

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For 20 years, the Salt River Project, an Arizona-based utility company, had sought to build an 18,000-acre strip mine near a salt lake in Western New Mexico. The Zuni Pueblo, other tribes, and environmentalists fought the plan, saying the mine would disrupt sacred Zuni burial sites and damage Zuni Salt Lake, a focal point of spiritual life for many tribes. The tribes and their allies methodically and aggressively fought the mine on every front, filing lawsuits, challenging hydrologic data, and staging media events.

Grist spoke with Pablo Padilla, a member of the Zuni Pueblo and a leader in the fight against the mine. Padilla, a 28-year-old law student at the University of New Mexico, left the pueblo in 1991, got a degree in government from Harvard, and then returned in 1997 to serve as the tribe’s first-ever environmental protection specialist. In that capacity, he coordinated the anti-SRP battle, implemented environmental programs, and helped manage the Zuni’s half-million acres of land. Grist caught up with Padilla in Boulder, Colo., where he is completing a summer internship with Environmental Defense.

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So this is a big victory. Are you surprised?

I’m surprised at the timing of this decision. The Salt River Project is a big force within Arizona. They’ve been adamant in every forum in which we’ve engaged them that they’re going to have this coal mine. My perception is it got too expensive and that there’s been an enormous amount of political pressure. Those two reasons were what finally tipped them over.

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The tribe has been pursuing issues of water hydrology. SRP’s original environmental impact statement said there would be no impact to the lake. The tribe had to hire its own consultants to take another look.

Pablo Padilla.

Photo: Environmental Leadership Program.

What did those consultants find?

They found huge discrepancies with the adequacy of the [SRP] hydrological reports, and heavy-handedness with which the project sponsors were dealing with cultural resource issues. There are an estimated 500 to 800 burial sites on the actual mine site. The BLM [U.S. Bureau of Land Management] and SRP tried to engage the tribes to develop a policy for burial. We weren’t able to because it’s such a contentious issue. The mining would re-contour that earth and dig up the graves. To [BLM and SRP], they’re just graves, but to us they’re our ancestors. So you can imagine the emotion that went into it.

With the hydrological issues, there are basically three sources of water, underground aquifers that the mine was going to tap. The deepest is the Dakota. We were able to show that there was a hydrological connection between the lake and that aquifer. So we were able to take it off the table. Then they moved to the Atarque aquifer. This past Friday, there was an issue with a pump test; the Zuni tribe and SRP and the feds, all the stakeholders were deciding how to do an adequate pump test to show that Atarque is connected to the lake, which is 10 miles away. I have a feeling that SRP knew that once that pump test happened they would not have a water site. The third aquifer is very shallow. It wouldn’t give enough output for them to do the operations.

What other factors do you think influenced SRP’s decision?

I have a few things that I think made them cave in. The first is that there were at least three tribal administrations that have taken on this issue — at least 15 years of the tribe actively engaged in stopping the mine. Just two days ago, we had several court proceedings in place, in federal court, in state court, in administrative court.

Second, we had a network of good legal and lobbying expertise that was crucial for us.

And third, and I don’t want to de-emphasize this at all, the tribe helped to create the Zuni Salt Lake Coalition about three years ago. The coalition ran a very aggressive campaign in Arizona to target the actual users of the energy. It’s a pretty powerful argument to say, “You’re going shave 6 cents off your next energy bill but at the expense of this very important place.”

As far as the tribe as a government is concerned, in the last few years we’ve entered direct negotiations with SRP. In the fall of 2001, we met and had eight mediation sessions with the company. Those broke down before a settlement could be reached. I couldn’t talk about this before, but now I can say it: They offered us millions of dollars to be quiet. We didn’t take it.

How did you personally get involved in this fight?

In my former job, I was environmental protection director for the tribe. Later I was executive assistant to the tribal council, part of the negotiating team.

One of my reasons for going to law school is so I can take up these type of issues, because I’ve seen the value of law and policy for the tribes.

You grew up on the pueblo. Was it difficult to leave and then return?

Yes. There are a lot of issues that come about by you leaving. My decision to transplant my little boy [Charles, age four] to the city while I get my degree is a difficult one. I mean this with all sincerity: One of the big reasons why I invested five years of my life in this project is because I want him to be able to make his pilgrimage to Zuni Salt Lake. It’s a really special thing. You go out to the lake and perform a ceremonial ritual. You go out there as a young boy and you make a pilgrimage there and make offerings to her and then you take salt from her and you go back and give the salt to your aunties.

That’s been going on for millennia. It’s one of the oldest rituals we have. At least 20 indigenous communities go to the Zuni Salt Lake. So even though the land is Zuni land, we’re just holding it for everyone else. Salt is really important. She’s a deity. She resides there at the lake. That whole area is a sanctuary area, so even when tribes used to fight, whenever we went into that area, everyone used to put their weapons down.

How does the fight over the mine tie in with the history of exploitation of native lands by the government and by corporations?

I consider this a classic story of someone bringing in a heavily subsidized industry at the expense of a local community, under the auspices of energy needs. In this case it turned out to be an Indian community. One of the real tragedies is the realization that rural America is so dependent on extractive industries. The state of New Mexico was going to get about $200 million from this, and 150 jobs, and now they’re not. So we’re being pitted against other people who wanted to see this happen.

One thing to note is that [New Mexico] Gov. Bill Richardson [D] has been quoted in the papers as saying that he’s happy about this decision. That’s a good sign. I’m really happy that we have leadership that can recognize the value [of Zuni Salt Lake] over and above what we might receive [economically].

Do you think the outcome in this case could have implications for future disputes of a similar nature?

I think so. I think that there’s a national campaign from indigenous people within this country to stop projects that are going to destroy their sacred sites. So this is good energy, a good victory for those other tribes that are still fighting.

One thing I’ve realized is that the issues I’ve seen my tribe face, other tribes are facing as well. I’d like to broaden the scope of my work to effect change in other tribes as well.

One of my goals in the next few months is to write about this, not just the victory but a history for my people of what just happened. I want to give it to my son so when he gets older he can understand. When he has a son he can show it to him and say, look what happened.