Gray dust spews from under the wheels of a pickup as two game wardens drive toward Zuni Salt Lake.
To the Zunis and other tribes, the lake is Salt Mother--a deity responsible for the steady flow of brine from an ancient volcanic cinder cone in the lake. For centuries, the Zunis, Navajos, Hopis, Acomas and other tribes have gathered salt for religious purposes.
Now those traditional practices are under threat.
An Arizona utility, the Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District, wants to dig a huge strip mine 12 miles from the lake. Its application for a mining permit has been pending before the U.S. Department of the Interior for more than a year.
The proposal to pump water for dust suppression at the proposed strip mine could dry up the lake, the Zunis say. Environmentalists warn this part of New Mexico could become an ever-expanding, coal-mining sacrifice zone to provide power for out-of-state customers.
This isn't just another battle that pits economic development and jobs against preserving the environment. It's a collision between Indian and non-Indian worlds.
Lake's Destruction Feared
Outside their truck, Zuni conservation officers Stanley Pinto and Keith Waatsa survey the area.
Waatsa says there will be no way to bring the salt lake back if the proposed strip mine hurts it.
"We don't know for sure if it will dry it up," Waatsa says. "But a lot of times, if they keep disturbing it, it might. And in our belief, it has religious significance."
"And the salt, you probably won't see it anymore," Pinto says. "A lot of Native Americans, I don't know what they would do. They wouldn't be able to do any of the things they need to do with the salt."
The utility wants to mine more than 80 million tons of coal from 18,000 acres of federal, state and private land in northern Catron and southern Cibola counties over the next 50 years. The company proposes to build 44 miles of rail to haul the coal from its proposed Fence Lake Mine to its electricity-generating station in St. John's, Ariz.
Zuni Gov. Malcolm Bowekaty says his people fear that the federal government will approve the mining plan despite questions about its likely effect on Zuni Salt Lake.
Bowekaty says the Zunis believe the salt lake is the body of Salt Mother and fear she will leave if the mining starts.
The Salt River Project has already secured federal and state leases for the coal, but its application for a mining permit has been pending before the Interior Department for more than a year.
The company proposes to pump an estimated 5,424 acre-feet of water, mostly for dust suppression. An acre-foot is about 325,000 gallons, which would cover an acre to a depth of a foot.
The proposed site lies entirely within a 182,000-acre "neutral zone," which the federal government has determined is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
Various hydrologists retained by the company or the Zunis have come up with different answers to the question of whether pumping ground water for mining would harm the lake.
Although the company's studies concluded that it would not, the pueblo's experts concluded that it might.
An environmental impact study prepared by the federal Office of Surface Mining recommended that the government approve the mining plan. Although the Zunis and others petitioned the office to declare the neutral zone unsuitable for mining because of its cultural significance, the agency declined to do so.
Jan V. Biella, deputy state historic preservation officer, says her office supported designating the salt lake and trails that lead to it as eligible for listing under the National Historic Preservation Act. That designation, which the federal government approved in July 1999, means federal agencies must minimize harm in the area, but doesn't necessarily prohibit mining.
The Office of Surface Mining's environmental study concluded that the effects of mining would be negligible. The office recommended that the Interior Department approve the Fence Lake Mine project.
The Zunis disagree.
"We have a strong belief that there's a strong hydrological connection between the proposed aquifer that the coal mine wants to tap into and the Zuni Salt Lake," Bowekaty says. "We definitely feel there's going to be a big impact. Salt River Project is willing to destroy a very unique feature. When we vent a lot of pressure that's forcing the water up, we will no longer have the salt."
The Office of Trust Responsibility in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs commissioned an independent hydrological report to examine the effect of the mining. It hired Phil King, an engineering professor at New Mexico State University.
King released a draft report critical of provisions that the Office of Surface Mining proposed to protect the lake. King says monitoring wells the agency proposed are in the wrong location and the geology between the lake and the mine should have been thoroughly investigated and mapped before observation wells were installed.
King still had fieldwork to do but said last month that he hadn't found anything markedly different from his draft conclusions.
He could not predict the effect of the proposed pumping on the lake, but added, "I do not believe that the body of work that is out there establishes that Zuni Salt Lake would be safe from harm."
Bob Barnard, manager of the Fence Lake Project for the company, says the firm is committed to monitoring ground water in the area to make sure pumping would have no effect on the lake.
"There have been studies by, at last count, I think eight different sets of hydrologists, and all of them have pretty much concluded that the only way to protect the lake was to put in a series of monitoring wells to ensure that if there were any changes in the aquifer, the lake would be protected," Barnard says. "And we would quit using the aquifer before it would have any chance to affect the lake."
Barnard doesn't believe King's eventual conclusions will be the last word. He says regulators would have to weigh King's opinion with those of hydrologists hired by the Zunis or the company or who work for regulatory agencies.
Barnard says his company owns the water rights it needs. New Mexico officials aren't so sure.
The proposed mine is in the Gallup Basin, which the state engineer's office declared closed in 1996. That required everyone who had been using water in the area before then to tell the state how much water they were using.
Salt River Project filed a notice claiming it has rights to use up to 990 gallons of water per minute. But the utility never filed an application with the state engineer seeking permission to use it.
Barnard says the utility has water rights from wells in the area formerly used to water livestock.
State Engineer Tom Turney says that if the company wants to start using old livestock wells for mining, it needs to apply for a permit. His office then would look at how much water was being pumped from the wells before 1996.
The Zunis also are pursuing a lawsuit in state court in Santa Fe challenging the state Mining Commission's approval of the mine.
The Catron County Commission has long favored the mine for economic reasons.
"That area up there is quite economically deprived, and [the mine] would enhance both the businesses and the employment," says County Manager Adam Polley.
The Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based environmental group, has long been critical of the mine. Peter Galvin, legal director for the center, says the mine promises to destroy at least two golden eagle nesting sites and the area's wild character.
Galvin says federal officials never examined the effects of massive industrialization.
"You look at what the legacy of all the uranium mining is around the Four Corners," he says. "And if we had to do it all over again, I don't think that we would have made those type of decisions. The coal-mining sacrifice area is a huge issue for us because there are other deposits [in the area]."