Coal Mining and Hopi Water

Your editorial, “Saving the Hopi Culture” (April 14), requires clarification and correction. The Hopi culture is not in danger from Peabody Western Coal Co.'s use of water from the Black Mesa in Arizona. Rather, it appears members of the Hopi Tribe wish to have a pipeline for their future growth and economic development. Why else would they be proposing a 50,000-acre-feet-per-year pipeline when Peabody Western only uses 3,500-acre-feet per year? The facts are as stated below.

Peabody Western Coal Co. extracts water from the Navajo aquifer, which lies more than 2,500-3,000 feet beneath the Black Mesa. This water is primarily used in transporting coal in a pipeline from the Black Mesa mine to the Mohave Power Station in Nevada. The pipeline allows 4.5 million tons of coal to be transported annually across the high desert in an environmentally benign way. The water is also used a second time at the power plant, thereby reducing the water extracted from the Colorado River at the plant. Under agreements with the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation, which were renewed as recently as 1987, Peabody Western pays the tribes more than $46 million per year for water, coal royalties and taxes, and provides more than 850 Native Americans with well-paying jobs.

The Hopi Tribe has now apparently reversed its position on our use of the water from the Navajo aquifer, even though numerous studies, including a 1993 study undertaken jointly by Peabody Western and the two tribes, concluded that Peabody Western’s use of water from the Navajo aquifer has no significant adverse impact on ground-water use on the Hopi Reservation. We are not aware of any “fact-based studies” which contradict these results. The Navajo aquifer encompasses an area of approximately 5,400 square miles and in the entire 35-year life of the mining operation, less than one-tenth of 1% of the water in the Navajo aquifer will be consumed by our operations.

The Hopi seem to propose a Lake Powell pipeline as a means to address their concerns about flows from certain springs, but their proposal misses that point. Changes in the flows from their springs may be the result of drought conditions in the region, and perhaps from the increased pumpage from Hopi community wells located near these springs. Peabody Western is sympathetic to the Hopi concern about their springs, but Peabody Western’s pumping from wells that are 2,500-3,000 feet deep does not affect these springs.


Peabody Western has offered to work cooperatively to review the practicalityof a smaller Lake Powell pipeline alternative. However, such a proposal is very complicated. In addition to the economic and environmental considerations of the pipeline construction, there is the problem of water rights. The parties currently have no water rights from Lake Powell and existing water rights are the subject of complex interstate arrangements and disputes. Certainly, the parties must cooperate if the pipeline is to receive proper consideration.

The Black Mesa mine has been thoroughly reviewed in previous environmental impact statements and has operated successfully for 25 years. Renewal of the Black Mesa mining permit has been pending before the U.S. Department of the Interior for nine years. On the basis of the government’s supervised water studies, renewal of the permit is long overdue.


Peabody Western Coal Co.


Flagstaff, Ariz.