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Scrapbook: Permit Yanked for Coal Mine Expansion on Tribal Lands

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February 09, 2010

Permit Yanked for Coal Mine Expansion on Tribal Lands

Photo by Doc Searles, courtesy of Creative Commons

The Sierra Club, tribal partners, and a coalition of environmental groups won a major victory in January when an Administrative Law Judge for the Department of Interior (DOI) withdrew Peabody Coal Company's permit to re-open and expand its controversial coal mining complex on Black Mesa, above, which overlaps Navajo and Hopi tribal lands.


"This is a huge victory for the communities of Black Mesa impacted by coal mining, and proof that Peabody can't have its way on Black Mesa anymore," says Hertha Woody, a Sierra Club activist and a member of the Navajo Nation.

Sierra Club organizer Andy Bessler says "big thanks goes to the more than 50 Hopi appellants, led by Kendall Nutumya, who got a successful ruling from the DOI, supported by similar appeals by tribal partners and environmental groups."


The permit was originally granted in December 2008 by the Bush administration DOI in spite of protests by Navajo and Hopi tribal members and environmental groups. Above and below, tribal activists rally in Denver, just before the permit was issued.

Photo by Wahleah Johns

The "Life of Mine" permit, which authorized and expanded Peabody's operations at Black Mesa beyond the year 2026 to allow for the extraction of an estimated 670 million tons of coal, was one of several fossil-fuel-friendly permits issued in the waning days of the Bush administration.

But Administrative Law Judge Robert Holt ruled this January that the permit violated the National Environmental Policy Act because DOI's Office of Surface Mining (OSM) failed to prepare an adequate environmental impact statement after Peabody proposed to enlarge its mining operations by nearly 19,000 acres.

"As a community member of Black Mesa I am grateful for this decision," says Wahleah Johns, co-director of Black Mesa Water Coalition and one of the petitioners in the appeal. "For 40 years our sacred homelands and people have borne the brunt of coal mining impacts, from relocation to depletion of our only drinking water source. This ruling is an important step towards restorative justice for indigenous communities who have suffered at the hands of multinational companies like Peabody Energy."


Among the Hopi elders who petitioned the DOI to stop any further water withdrawls on Black Mesa was Melvin George. "There are 52 names on our own petition from the mesas, and I am proud to say, they are all elders," he told the Navajo-Hopi Observer. "They fully understood when they signed it that the water petition meant we wanted Peabody to stop using our precious water. We can't survive without water. I want this request to be seen as important, and I would like it to be addressed by OSM as important, so our children and grandchildren won't have to come back and request it themselves."

The Black Mesa Coal Mine Complex has a long history of controversy stemming from concerns about air and water pollution, impacts to local residents, the depletion of aquifers and sacred springs, and coal's contribution to global warming. Peabody began operating the Black Mesa and Kayenta strip mines on Black Mesa in 1967, constituting the most extensive strip mining operation in the United States at the time.

When the operation was up and running, Peabody was pumping more than 50 gallons per second of pristine groundwater from the Navajo Aquiferthe sole source of drinking water on Black Mesadepleting the aquifer by 100 feet per year. The water was mixed with crushed coal, creating "slurry" which was sent through a 273-mile pipeline from Black Mesa to the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada, below, where it was dried and burned to create electricity for Las Vegas and Southern California.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But the Mohave Generating Station closed at the end of 2005, the end result of a battle that began in 1998 when the Sierra Club, the Grand Canyon Trust, and the National Parks Conservation Association filed a Clean Air Act lawsuit to force Mohave to install pollution controls. According to the EPA, the plant emitted up to 40,000 tons of sulfur dioxide annually, making it the dirtiest coal-fired power plant in the West. In 1999, Mohave's owners agreed to either upgrade the plant by the end of 2005 or shut it down. Ultimately they closed the plant rather than pay for improvements.

"The life cycle of fossil fuel development is a nasty cycle," says Johns, below. "From exploration to extraction to the burning of fossil fuels to the waste product, it leaves behind a lot of illness within the communities, as well as pollution in the water and the air. It's important that indigenous peoples be supported who are resisting these extractive industry proposed projects on their homelands."

Photo courtesy of Wahleah Johns

Learn more about the Sierra Club's tribal partnerships.

Note: The legal work for the Hopi appeal on which the DOI decision was based was prepared by Arizona-based legal eagles David Abney & Sean Gnant, and students at the UCLA Frank G. Wells Environmental Law Clinic under the direction of Sean B. Hecht. Additional appeals were filed by Martin Homec, Verrin Kewenvoyouma, Esq., Victor Masayesva, Jr., the Black Mesa Water Coalition, and other groups including The Forgotten People and involved Navajo residents from Coal Mine, Leupp, and Tonalea Chapters of the Navajo Nation. 

The coalition of organizations involved with Sierra Club’s appeal included the Black Mesa Water Coalition, Diné C.A.R.E., Dine Hataalii Association, Inc., To' Nizhoni Ani, C-Aquifer for Diné, Diné Alliance, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and Natural Resources Defense Council. Legal representation in the appeal was given by the Energy Minerals Law Center attorneys Brad Bartlett and Travis Stills and Center for Biological Diversity Senior Attorney Amy Atwood.


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