Two days before Christmas, officials from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) have granted a permit to Peabody Coal Company to expand their mining operations on Navajo and Hopi lands, despite opposition from local communities and problems with the permitting process including lack of adequate time for public comment on a significant revision to the permit, insufficient environmental review, and instability in the Hopi government preventing their legitimate participation in the process. OSM’s "Record of Decision" (ROD) is the final stage of the permitting process for the proposed "Black Mesa Project," which would grant Peabody Coal Company a life-of-mine permit for the "Black Mesa Complex" in northern Arizona.
Black Mesa Water Coalition, a Navajo and Hopi citizens organization working on indigenous sovereignty and environmental protection, has vowed to stop Peabody from causing further harm to Black Mesa. "We are looking into our options for how to stop this process from moving forward, including legal action. The permitting process was flawed and clearly rushed through before President Bush leaves office," said Enei Begaye, Co-Director of Black Mesa Water Coalition.
Wahleah Johns, Co-Director of Black Mesa Water Coalition said, "This decision will uproot the sacred connection that we have to land, water, and all living things on Black Mesa. Black Mesa is a female mountain, sacred to the Navajo people, and has been brutally scarred from over 30 years of coal mining activity and the resulting loss of 60 percent of our only source of drinking water. Our ancestors fought hard to retain our homelands, but even now in 2008 we are up against the same battle to protect our homelands. The abuse to mother earth needs to stop."
This announcement is consistent with the Bush Administration’s history of releasing controversial decisions on Friday evenings and before holidays. Samantha Honani, a Hopi Tewa tribal member, said, "This is the worst kind of Christmas present. The Hopi Tewa people will not be in holiday bliss this Christmas but in deep thought and contemplation of where we are as a tribe and people without a Tribal Leader given this devastating Record of Decision."
Two weeks ago, a delegation of 40 Navajo and Hopi tribal members, including Hopi Tribal Chairman Ben Nuvamsa, met with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) at their Denver headquarters in hopes of delaying OSM’s decision. For three hours the Navajo and Hopi representatives met with OSM officials and presented documents and petitions ratified by their communities that urge OSM to suspend their decision. Their unified statement read, "Although we represent two different tribes, we come today united to protect our shared land and water. Water is the life source to both our peoples, and Peabody has failed to understand this connection. If the Office of Surface Mining grants a permit to Peabody, our way of life and spiritual balance will be severely disrupted and altered. Currently, we are already suffering the damage this industry has caused over the past 30 years. We believe OSM has been negligent in fulfilling the NEPA process, and if OSM issues a "Record of Decision" that would be a breach of the Federal Trust Responsibility. United we ask the Office of Surface Mining to stop the "Record of Decision" process."
This decision comes in the midst of Hopi political turmoil. Chairman Nuvamsa came to represent the Hopi and Tewa people in the battle to protect the water and lands from further coal mining in Black Mesa, AZ. "Due to lack of representation on the Hopi Tribal Council, the Village of Tewa was never afforded the opportunity to participate in any discussion of the Draft EIS as it applies to Hopi people and land," stated Chairman Nuvamsa.
Navajo and Hopi citizen’s were given 45 days to comment on a revised "Black Mesa Project" Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and were never offered a public commenting period. Requests for commenting period extensions were denied by OSM as well as requests for OSM to come to Navajo and Hopi lands for question and answer meetings.
Two months ago, Arizona Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva wrote to Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne to suspend further consideration of Peabody’s permit. "At present, OSM is rushing to approve a life-of-mine permit, first without making the permit revisions sufficiently available for public review, and then without adequate environmental review…Mining at Black Mesa has caused springs on Hopi lands to dry up and jeopardized the sole source of drinking water for many Hopis and Navajos. The Secretary, as the trustee for Native American tribes, must ensure that mining is done responsibly on tribal lands and that tribes actually want mining to occur. This project does not meet that test."
Black Mesa Navajo and Hopi residents are concerned about how this decision will impact the future of their homelands given the history of Peabody’s unwise use of the Navajo Aquifer. "For decades coal and water from our lands have been taken to power Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Yet, we have have suffered the loss of our sole source drinking water to accommodate the over consumption of these areas," says Wahleah Johns, Co-Director of Black Mesa Water Coalition.
Black Mesa is the ancestral homelands to thousands of Navajo and Hopi families and is regarded as a sacred mountain to the Navajo people and plays an integral role in the cultural survival for the future generations of both the Navajo and Hopi people.
ELSA JOHNSON is a member of the Forest Lake Chapter of the Navajo Nation.