“Somewhere far away from us, people have no understanding that their demand for cheap electricity, air conditioning and lights 24 hours a day have contributed to the imbalance of this very delicate place.” -- Nicole Horseherder, Navajo, Black Mesa
For years upon years beneath star-heavy skies, the Navajo awakened before the sun rose over northeastern Arizona’s Black Mesa to guide their sheep to the natural waters of desert washes and springs to beat the overwhelming heat of day. For those who kept cattle in more modern times, they dug wells powered by windmills to pump groundwater into drinking troughs. The Hopi, farmers whose reservation borders Black Mesa’s fringe, channeled these same waters onto hillside terraces where they planted their sacred and sustaining crops of corn.
But that was when there was water on Black Mesa.
Today, few Navajo lead their sheep to water, the cattle troughs are no longer full, and the Hopi have abandoned many of the terraces as their springs, washes and groundwater have gone dry. Instead, they drive as far as 25 miles, often over untended roads, to water stations where they fill 55-gallon barrels roped into pickup trucks. The disappearance of their water is threatening a traditional lifestyle for the Navajo and Hopi, who so value tradition that they voted not to have gaming and the millions of dollars it has brought to other Native American tribes. They do not blame the drought that has plagued the West for so many years now. They blame Peabody Western Coal Co.'s Black Mesa mine, which they say has been siphoning their water for three decades, and their own tribal governments that have allowed that water use.
Tapping the water from the Navajo aquifer, as deep as 3,000 feet beneath Black Mesa, the mine pumps water aboveground, where it propels crushed coal as a slurry mixture 273 miles through a pipeline to Southern California Edison’s Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev. There the aquifer water is drained and the coal is dried and burned, producing 3% of Southern California’s electricity, or enough to power 1.5 million homes. On an average day, Peabody draws 3.3 million gallons of water from below Black Mesa.
Peabody, which pays the tribes $4.3 million annually for the water, argues that the water sources above and below ground are not related. The company has commissioned studies, hired consultants and created a computer model simulating the effects of water taken from the aquifer. Their findings show that God and the weather, not the coal company, are to blame for the Navajo and Hopi hardship. And they say they have the science to prove it.
But “that is because they are using Western science,” says Vernon Masayesva, a Hopi who sits as executive director of the Black Mesa Trust, a nonprofit organization founded to safeguard the Navajo aquifer and surrounding land. “In Western science they will tell you everything is disconnected in neat little compartments. In telling you the water [on the surface] is not connected to the aquifer, they are telling you your thumb is not connected to your toes. The Hopi [and Navajo] are saying that it doesn’t work that way. In our science, we know everything is interconnected. Everything is universally together, each part to make the other work.”
Since mining began on Black Mesa in 1970, the local Navajo and Hopi have fought its operation on a grass-roots level, pitting their science against Western science with little result. But in recent years, they took another step. Adopting the tactics of Western politics, they began organizing, lobbying and voting--steps unfamiliar to their cultures. The result is that today, through their combination of new politics and “Indian science,” they have Peabody wondering if everything is, indeed, interconnected.
Black Mesa is a hand-shaped landmass that covers 5,400 square miles near the northern border of the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona. Its surface eases from a scant cover of desert grasses and brush into low stretches of juniper and pinon, and ultimately rock and boulders. It’s bone-dry desert land, yet beneath is the Navajo aquifer, a porous, water-bearing sandstone layer that stretches 7,500 square miles and holds about 17 times the amount of water in Lake Powell. Thousands of years of the earth’s settling put the water under great pressure, so that cracks in the sandstone traditionally brought forth desert springs.
Black Mesa also is home to rich coal deposits. With Southern California’s voracious appetite for energy, the U.S. Department of the Interior in the mid-1960s brokered a deal with the Navajo Nation and the Hopi tribe to open the mine. Because Black Mesa was so remote, with no access to rail or traditional shipping, the only way to move the coal profitably was to build a slurry pipeline. Black Mesa is the only mine in the world to use a water-propelled pipeline for coal delivery, yet it does so from one of the most arid regions in the U.S., where two Native American cultures consider water a centerpiece of their existence. The plan, approved by unsophisticated tribal governments at the time, was a recipe for controversy.
Masayesva, then a high school student in the Hopi village of Hotevilla, often attended the meetings of his village elders, “mesmerized” by their wisdom and oratory skills. As the mine went into operation and the elders grasped the full implications of the deal their tribal council had made, Masayesva says, they began to oppose the mine. They came from a culture that believed you could no more own water than you could own the air, but they knew they had to adapt to Western ways. They sued the mine’s owners and Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton in 1973, but the lawsuit suffered from their inexperience and eventually was dismissed on procedural grounds.
What Masayesva remembers most about their defeat was “the way the elders were being treated, ignored and ridiculed throughout that process.” It made him angry, and the experience profoundly shaped his life.
In the mid-1980s, Masayesva joined the Hopi Tribal Council as a representative to get a closer look at the mine. What he saw convinced him there was a chance of throwing out the mine lease and negotiating a new one. But at what cost? Revenues from the mine today generate more than one-third of the Hopi tribe’s annual general fund, or $7.7 million, and that money paid the salaries of those who managed many of the tribe’s services. Mine revenues make up 25% of the Navajo Nation’s general operating fund, or $30 million per year. If disconnecting from the aquifer caused the mine to shut down, where would that money come from? Masayesva says the majority of the council at the time settled for renegotiating a slightly better price for the water and the coal.
Between 1989 and 1990, Masayesva rose from council representative to vice chairman and then to chairman, but even from that post he was frustrated. “The only thing we accomplished during my time on the council was to persuade the Secretary of the Interior to withhold Black Mesa’s permanent [mining] permit,” Masayesva says. That permanent permit, which by law should be issued within a reasonable time, was placed on “administrative delay.” That status has remained unchanged into the fourth decade of mining.
As it turns out, Masayesva’s “only” accomplishment would prove to be unexpectedly significant.
He did not campaign for reelection as chairman in 1994 because he felt the tribal government system had been too compromised. “I decided instead I needed to work with the grass-roots people who had not been represented, ever,” Masayesva says. “I decided to put all my energy to fighting the fight from outside the government.”
He spent several years writing and organizing, and in 1998 he founded the Black Mesa Trust. In alliance with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a million-member public health and environmental organization, Masayesva immediately began challenging the water studies that showed “no significant impact” to the Navajo aquifer from Black Mesa’s mining. Black Mesa Trust members, only a handful at that point, began attending, sponsoring and appearing at water summits and meetings, where they presented their grievances against the mine and their proposed solutions. They took every opportunity to educate and influence anyone who would listen, but like all roads on Black Mesa, this one would be long and bumpy.
“Because we had come out so negatively against the mining and also took on our own Hopi government, neither the government agencies or the mine were too interested in us in the beginning,” Masayesva says.
But in 2001, Peabody again was forced to apply for the mine’s permanent permit because of terms in the renewal of its coal supply agreement with Edison’s Mohave station. Its application ignored the growing opposition to the water-based delivery from the mine. In fact, the company asked permission to mine more coal, using even more water.
“The timing of their permit application was perfect for us,” Masayesva says. “That process allowed the opportunity for public comment on the mine plan.”
It was the opportunity he and Black Mesa Trust had been waiting for.
At Black Mesa mine, draglines as tall as four-story buildings cut the earth with booms that can reach a football field in length. Exposed seams of coal are skinned clean, drilled and blasted, then hauled in trucks larger than railcars. Water trucks pass with wide sprays to suppress the dirt and coal dust that rise into the air. Mine workers communicate by radio from within sealed, air-conditioned cabs.
Behind the draglines, large tractors, with drivers guided by topographical maps, grade the desert to approximate its original shape, practicing Peabody’s own form of interconnectedness. At the request of Navajo living near the mine, much of the returned land has been reseeded for livestock grazing. To date, 13,000 acres of mined land have been reclaimed and seeded with 120 local plant species, including many natural herbs for Navajo and Hopi medicines and remedies.
The goal of Peabody and the Office of Surface Mining--the Department of the Interior agency that oversees mining operations--is that, to the eye, no one will be able to tell a coal mine existed on Black Mesa after the coal seams are spent and mining is complete.
Of course, none of that replaces what the eye can’t see--the aquifer water. For that Peabody answers with science.
“We have measured spring flows, spring locations, looked at the places where the Navajo aquifer discharges,” says Carla Johnson, CEO of Colorado-based Waterstone Environmental Hydrology & Engineering Inc. As a Peabody consultant, the hydrogeologist has studied the mine’s effect on the aquifer since 1985. “Where the aquifer recharges we have done tree-ring studies to look at variability and drought over the years,” she says. To say the mine’s pumping is the cause of surface water problems on Black Mesa are “grains of truth distorted by people who don’t know the science.”
According to her science, the water supply to local Navajo livestock watering wells is tapped near the surface, typically at 10 feet to 100 feet. The water at that depth is above and divided from the Navajo aquifer by multiple layers of impervious silt and sand. Some Navajo springs feed from the same near-surface water. As for the Hopi springs, Johnson says, they emanate from portions of the aquifer outside the area affected by the mine’s pumping.
“They are separate hydrological basins,” she says. “In dry periods, those springs simply turn off. In wet periods, they turn on. In general, there is a direct relationship between the level of flow in the springs and the amount of precipitation.”
Johnson says experts believe the western U.S. is in the middle of a 20-year drought. Tree-ring studies suggest “that there are cycles of drought that come and go on a regular basis. Sometimes they last hundreds of years. Sometimes they last 20 years.”
As for the size of the aquifer, “Peabody’s pumping in the past 30 years, plus an additional 30 years, is going to account for less than one-tenth of 1%" of the total water stored in the Navajo aquifer, says Peabody’s Brian Dunfee, manager of environmental engineering at the Black Mesa mine.
Though Masayesva has taken to Western ways in organizing and lobbying, he has not wavered from the deeply spiritual Native American beliefs that have guided him from the beginning. “The fundamental principle in our science that they need to understand is that, as Hopis, we have a sacred covenant with the person that was here a long time before our ancestors arrived.” This person was a farmer, a caretaker who, according to Masayesva, gave the tribe permission to use the land--but with a warning. “This person told us it will be hard to be a farmer in a waterless world, no forests, no flowing water or lakes. To survive here you have to have a very strong spiritual life. But if you take care of this land and use its resources in the best possible way, you will be here a long time. That is a covenant that only the Hopis have of all the Indian tribes.”
Masayesva says that’s how the Hopi lived for many hundreds of years until modern times, when geologists discovered coal beneath their lands.
“When we turned something sacred, our water, into a commodity that you sell, this is where our water problems began. This is our knowledge. This is our science. But they say that this is just an Indian story because we can’t measure that, quantify that, can’t put it into your computer.”
In Navajo science, the images are different but the essence of environmental interconnectedness is the same. "[Our] earth is female and the sky is male,” says Nicole Horseherder, a Navajo from Black Mesa. “They are counterparts and mates that keep everything in balance. From the sky and clouds comes the rain that is released to the earth that become the streams and pools . . . that become the groundwater, so the water in different forms comes back to the earth.”
As a result, she says, “everything that lives on the earth has prosperity and health and reproduction. The relationship between the two has been disrupted. By drawing out so much groundwater you can see the sky and rain clouds change. It is the relationship of the earth drawing water from the sky and the sky drawing water back from the earth that creates the harmony.”
In June of 2001, Horseherder and her cousin Marie Dladue hosted a water meeting and invited the Black Mesa Trust, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. As Navajo growing up on Black Mesa, neither had heard or paid much attention to the mine and the slurry operations. But as adults, they grew more aware of the issues involved and got angry that their scarce and sacred water was being taken for industrial use, especially as they hauled water for cooking, cleaning and bathing their children.
Inspired by the water meeting, Horseherder and her husband, Marshall Johnson, attended the 2002 spring session of the Navajo Nation Council in Window Rock, Ariz., where water rights was a centerpiece topic. With the new Peabody application, “our great fear was that the Navajo council would just renegotiate all of it without holding hearings and without all our people’s approval,” Horseherder says.
What happened instead was that there was little comment on the Navajo aquifer or the Peabody application in the council session. The water talks instead focused on matters with the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River Basin. No one was representing the Navajo side of the water controversies on Black Mesa as Masayesva was doing for the Hopi. “It opened our eyes to how our leaders were just letting the situation on Black Mesa happen,” Horseherder says. “They were allowing representatives from groups to get up and talk, and I pushed my husband up there.”
Unrehearsed, Johnson addressed the Navajo Nation Council.
“There were a couple of things that made a difference when Marshall spoke,” Horseherder says. “He addressed the council delegates in the traditional manner, with the traditional etiquette of our people. He spoke to them in Navajo, a very highly respectful thing to do. And he came across with a tone of voice that was not condescending.”
And they seemed to listen.
Energized by their reception in Window Rock, and seeing the need for representation of the Navajo water issues on Black Mesa, Horseherder and Johnson dedicated themselves to mobilizing the local people. While Peabody built a $2-million computer model to fulfill its legal obligation to assess the effect of its mining on the aquifer, Horseherder and Johnson drew poster boards showing how an aquifer could be depleted and depressurized. While they met with their traditional elders and medicine people to ensure they kept balance with the Navajo’s spiritual meaning of water, they drafted a resolution asking current Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton to stop Navajo aquifer pumping and to find non-water-based transportation for Black Mesa coal.
“We had an opportunity to go to school, and now I have a master’s degree . . . I am able to research and draft technical documents, but at the same time I am from this area. I can speak the language. I have a heart for this area,” Horseherder says. “So we carried the wisdom of both worlds with us in this effort. We did the kind of work that a lawyer could do for us, and at the same time we sought the knowledge, the teaching and the prayers our elders told us we needed in order to tackle this.”
Horseherder and Johnson began “pounding dirt roads for hours at a time,” from one community to another, meeting with groups of 25 to 80 people, traveling hundreds of miles until they had reached the residents of 11 of the 14 Navajo chapter houses in and around Black Mesa. (A chapter represents the most local form of Navajo government, and a resolution from a chapter is the “official voice of the people of that community,” Horseherder says.) The work took them away from their children at night and left them exhausted at the start of each day.
After months of work, Horseherder and Johnson got those 11 chapter houses to oppose Navajo aquifer pumping. They then asked the Navajo Council to adopt the resolution on behalf of the Navajo Nation as a whole. What happened then surprised them.
“When we approached Window Rock, they told us to come back next week, then come back next month, and pretty soon they didn’t even have us on the agenda,” Johnson says. “You hear them talk in Window Rock that people are the power of the government. They were trying to [stress] local empowerment. Yet we had a resolution from all the communities directly impacted by Black Mesa mine--and it turned out our government didn’t want to hear us.”
The final call on Navajo aquifer pumping in Arizona will be decided in federal court and with the California Public Utilities Commission, suggesting that everything is indeed interconnected beyond the Navajo and Hopi worlds.
Southern California Edison’s Mohave Generating Station belches 40,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air each year, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, making it one of the largest sources of that pollutant in the West. The white haze that Mohave pushed over the Grand Canyon made it the target of a late-1990s lawsuit by the Grand Canyon Trust, the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Assn. A federal consent decree resulting from the lawsuit required Edison to retrofit Mohave with pollution control equipment by Dec. 31, 2005--the same date Edison’s coal supply agreement with the Black Mesa mine expires.
Before committing an estimated $1.1 billion to retrofit the Mohave plant, replace the aging slurry pipeline and build a proposed new water transport pipeline, and considering the growing challenge to the mine operations on Black Mesa, Edison demanded that Peabody obtain its permanent mining permit as a condition to starting the retrofit. Edison wanted to make sure that if it made the investment, Mohave’s coal supply would be secure for decades. Showing little concern for the water issues on Black Mesa, Edison also asked for a daily increase in coal volume and that the coal be “washed” before it is slurried so that it would burn cleaner--processes that called for a 34% increase in the mine’s water draw.
As Peabody initiated the permanent permit process, Masayesva began spreading the word using a thoroughly modern tool--the Internet. Where Peabody’s applications in the past had received scant notice by the local people, this time, due to the awareness created by the Black Mesa Trust, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others, the Office of Surface Mining received 7,000 comments on the permit application in a short time, all objecting to the mine’s continued use of the aquifer. The outcry from the Navajo and Hopi people was so unified that, at least initially, both Joe Shirley Jr., the elected president of the Navajo Nation, and Wayne Taylor Jr., the elected chairman of the Hopi tribe, demanded that Black Mesa mine disconnect from the Navajo aquifer by what now became everyone’s deadline--the end of 2005.
Facing public hearings and little chance of reversing local opinions, Peabody regrouped. The company later announced its willingness to disconnect Black Mesa mine from the Navajo aquifer. But there was one catch: It first had to secure an alternative water source to propel the slurry pipeline.
Peabody began work on a new permanent permit application two years ago and met frequently with Edison, the tribes and involved government and environmental agencies to find an alternative to the Navajo aquifer.
The preferred plan would tap the Coconino aquifer 120 miles east of Black Mesa, already being used by three power plants and many northern Arizona communities, including Flagstaff and Winslow. The portion of the aquifer that would be affected by that move is 3 1/2 times the size of the Navajo aquifer. A pipeline would have to be built to transport Coconino water to the Black Mesa mine slurry system, but the Navajo and Hopi tribal councils liked the idea because the pipeline also could deliver water to dry villages along the way.
The various parties began working toward a compromise. Edison, which takes over all coal transportation responsibilities at the end of 2005, including procurement of water, would pay $150 million to build the pipeline between the mine and the Coconino aquifer under the proposed plan. The U.S. government agreed, in principle, to pay to increase pipe capacity to accommodate tribal needs. But clearly, even if the Coconino aquifer pipeline proved environmentally, practically and financially acceptable, it would not be agreed upon and built by the 2005 deadline. And if that aquifer could not replace the water from the Navajo aquifer, Edison and Peabody had no other coal transportation alternative. Talk soon turned to the possible extension of the 2005 deadline.
Navajo President Shirley and Hopi Chairman Taylor were the first to call for a deadline extension that would allow the mine to continue using its traditional water source--a concession offer that Masayesva, Marshall Johnson and Horseherder say was predictable given the tribal governments’ long history of cooperation with the mine company. But while they were backpedaling, Horseherder had been persisting with the resolution to the Navajo council. On Friday, July 25, 2003, against the wishes of Shirley, the Navajo Nation Council voted 48-12 to adopt Horseherder’s resolution asking the Secretary of the Interior to intervene and force Peabody off the Navajo aquifer by the 2005 date.
“When they passed the resolution, I was actually numb,” Horseherder says. “It took me a couple of weeks to realize we won, that our biggest goal had been achieved.”
While the Interior Department has the ultimate power to disconnect the mine, it is unlikely to rule in direct opposition to the Navajo council. “I think the resolution changed everything,” Horseherder says. “It meant that if the mine continued using the Navajo aquifer, it did so directly against the wishes and requests of the Navajo tribe.”
The California Public Utilities Commission has been closely following the showdown at Black Mesa because it eventually will have to approve or deny the Mohave retrofit plans. Edison has not yet started its retrofit, and nothing suggests that the commission will allow the generating station to continue current operations beyond the deadline.
“In light of the issues surrounding the plant, we have concluded it is probable that Mohave will be shut down at the end of 2005,” says Alan J. Fohrer, Southern California Edison’s chief executive officer. “If it comes back, it would most likely be after an extended shutdown sometime [until] 2009, assuming these issues can be resolved.”
If the Mohave generating station shuts down, so will the mine that produces its coal. Despite the apparent and costly victory, Masayesva says he intends to remain vigilant. Horseherder agrees. “I too am now hopeful that use of the Navajo aquifer will stop,” she says. “I really have to see Dec. 31, 2005, come around. I am skeptical because I know that money can change people’s minds and make things happen, and we are not powerful in those means.”
If the Black Mesa mine’s pumping of the Navajo aquifer stops, it will be the end of a long quest for Masayesva. It will test his claim that nature, left alone over time, will return the natural waters to Black Mesa, drought or no drought.
“I would feel very good [if] the pumps finally shut down,” he says. “I hear [that] water running even in my sleep. It’s driving me crazy, so I am happy about that. On the other hand, I understand it’s going to create adverse economic impact.”
In addition to the $7.7 million general fund loss, Hopi spokeswoman Vanessa Charles says “we would be looking at about 150 tribal employees losing their jobs, people employed directly by the tribe in various administrative areas,” not including the 228 Native Americans working at the mine who also would lose their jobs.
The effect of the aquifer victory also may be sending wider ripples through these traditional cultures. Although Charles claims there’s no connection between the two, the Hopi, facing a revenue crunch and high unemployment, took advantage of recent changes in Arizona law and reconsidered the possibility of Indian gaming in a special election referendum on May 19. For the second time in 10 years, the Hopi voted overwhelmingly against gambling on their reservation--leaving open the question of how the tribe will replace mine revenue that presumably will be lost. The Navajo, also struggling with unemployment of about 50%, were considering the same possibility even before the mine closing became a real possibility, according to Navajo spokeswoman Deana Jackson. In the anticipated referendum, she says, “we believe the Navajo people will vote affirmative” to bring gaming to their reservation.
But for Johnson and Horseherder, the end of mine pumping and the return of natural waters would mean a new beginning. “We want to raise animals where there is an abundance of them, as our ancestors did,” Johnson says. “Without hauling water.”
But for them too, it isn’t easy.
“Taking on the issues of Black Mesa have taken a huge toll on our family. You have to understand we have no money to pay anyone to do anything for us when we meet these agencies and corporations,” Horseherder says. “We don’t have money to pay ourselves. We have long gone through our savings. But when you have small children looking up at you, you have to imagine and envision what life is going to be for them in 20 years and 50 years, even when you are not here anymore. You have to imagine what you are going to leave for them. Are our people still going to be able to live here, speaking and carrying on this way of life that we cherish?”
On the Web: See additional photos narrated in an interactive gallery at latimes.com/blackmesa