One of the first speakers was Vernon Masayesva, a co-founder of the Black Mesa Trust, an organization formed to protect the N-aquifer from the coal slurry. Beginning with a detailed description of the Hopi calendar, Masayesva stated that this time between the months of November and February belongs to the religious leaders.
“Out of respect, traditional Hopi cannot be involved in political stuff. In fact, holding these hearings at this time is another sign of the disconnection between [non-Indians] and the Hopi,” Masayesva said. “Many Hopi are not here to speak because of their religious beliefs.”
Masayesva was concerned that many Hopi and Navajo who wished to speak were unable, due to such religious beliefs, the lack of transportation, or the inability to traverse snow and mud-packed roads. These concerns were echoed throughout the night, leading to invitations from communities and individuals to OSM members for additional visits.
Calvin Long, a member of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, asked for an extension of the public comment period, with more meetings in reservation communities so that people would be able to attend.
“Drinking water and spring water is for human consumption, not for industrial use,” Long said. “Using it [for slurrying coal] is disgusting and psychotic. [The mining operation] at Black Mesa has caused the displacement of indigenous people who are dealing with a loss of cultural identity.”
Tony Skrelunas, who has served his Navajo Nation as the head of Economic Development, now works with the Flagstaff-based organization, Grand Canyon Trust. It was this entity that successfully sued the Mohave Generating Station, winning an order that the operation install equipment such as scrubbers to reduce hazardous emissions—requirements that the plant has yet to meet.
Skrelunas noted that Native Americans are now far savvier in their business dealings, and must continue to assert authority over their energy resources.
“The Grand Canyon Trust asks the Office of Surface Mining to reject the permit and require Peabody to complete a new application,” Skrelunas said.
Health risks associated with coal-fired power plants include the emission of hazardous pollutants such as particulate matter, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Health problems such as asthma, stunted lung growth, respiratory illnesses and cancer are attributed to this industry—an industry that provides nearly 60 percent of America’s electricity.
Not all Native Americans present at the meeting were against the use of C-aquifer water to continue mining operations. Representatives from the Hopi Tribal Council and Peabody Coal spoke to the positive benefits of the mining operation.
Bobby Begay pointed out that Peabody pays state taxes, which funds reservation schools.
“We stand to lose $15 million,” Begay said. “Do you think the people in Phoenix or Flagstaff will help us fund our schools? I have grandchildren going to school.”
Scott Canty, an attorney for the Hopi Tribe, recognized the importance of the N-aquifer by stating that it was the only source of drinking water for the tribe.
“Without it, the Hopi will not survive,” Canty said.
Canty also said that it was important to take into consideration the economic impact of closing the mine to both the Navajo and Hopi people. He pointed out that the mining operation provides 35 percent of the operational costs of the Hopi Tribe.
“The Hopi Tribal Council has expressed the view that it is impossible for most [of the Hopi] to stay on the land without an economy, and that [the closure of Peabody] would cause a direct economic impact.”
Canty encouraged OSM to take into serious consideration the use of C-aquifer water for industrial and municipal use for both the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation. Though the Hopi Tribe is moving away from its reliance on coal resources, halting the mining operation in 2005 would throw the tribe into a tailspin, Canty concluded.
Marie Justice, president of the union representing coal miners at Black Mesa, described the men and women employed at Black Mesa as hard workers.
“Most of them are not college educated.” She said. “Many do not speak English. But they provide money for the Navajo Nation scholarship program, the Manuelito Scholarship. We are very proud people.”
Jones Benally addressed air quality issues with his signature humor, predicting a time when human beings would be forced to rely on bottled air just as many now rely on bottled water.
The emotionally charged testimony continued until 1 a.m. on Jan. 14, despite the urging of Holbrook to speakers—more than 40—to speed up their statements. At the end, tired and irritable, Holbrook and his team members packed up their equipment and headed for a warm room and bed.
Others, residents of Big Mountain, Forest Lake and other far-flung communities faced two- and three-hour drives back home to the reservation.
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