Black Mesa Trust, feds to investigate N-aquifer damage
KYKOTSMOVI—The Natural Resources Defense Council has concluded that Peabody Coal Company’s pumping of ground water for its coal-slurry operation on Black Mesa may already have caused substantial damage to the Navajo aquifer in Northern Arizona.
The Council’s report, “Drawdown: Groundwater Mining on Black Mesa,” gives added weight to the concerns of Hopi farmers and ranchers who have long maintained that their traditional seeps and springs fed by the N-aquifer are drying up.
On February 7, Black Mesa Trust founder and executive director Vernon Masayesva and the Trust’s president Leonard Selestewa, as well as David Beckman, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, will meet in Denver, Colorado with representatives of four federal agencies to present the Council’s findings.
Peabody Coal Company uses N-aquifer water to slurry coal from the Kayenta Mine on Black Mesa to the Mohave Generating Plant in Laughlin, Nevada, 273 miles away.
“This meeting is welcome news,” said Mr. Masayesva, “but I hope that whatever comes out of the meeting will not just be another excuse to delay resolution of serious water depletion issues on Black Mesa and the settlement of the Little Colorado River water rights adjudication. Black Mesa Trust remains firmly committed to ending Peabody’s use of N-aquifer water by the end of the year 2004.”
The N-aquifer is the sole source of drinking water for the Hopi Reservation and parts of the Navajo Reservation, and therefore its long-term health is critically important to both tribes. Peabody Coal Company currently drains hundreds of millions of gallons a year from the aquifer for its coal-slurry operation.
The federal agencies that will be involved in the meeting are the United States Geological Survey, the Office of Surface Mining, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Arizona Senator Jon Kyl has secured funding for studying the Black Mesa water issue as part of the $1 million in the 2001 Energy and Water Development appropriation for the Bureau of Reclamation to study water projects to serve municipal and industrial uses on Hopi and Navajo as part of the settlement of Little Colorado River water rights.
David Hayes, Deputy Secretary of the Interior, stated in his memo of January 19 to the four federal agencies that an investigation and analysis of the N-aquifer will include “a review of recent N-aquifer studies conducted by private, government and tribal agencies, incorporation of updated information into the USGS groundwater model originally constructed in the 1980s, and recalibration of the USGS model using currently available data and up-to-date calibration methods.”
Until now, Peabody Coal Company and the federal government have maintained, based on the current USGS computer model, that no significant damage to the N-aquifer has occurred or will occur due to the company’s pumping of water from the ancient aquifer. Peabody and OSMRE have consistently maintained that that during the life of the mine the mining company will use only one-half of one percent of the water available in the aquifer.
However, NRDC’s report, issued in October of last year, found that at least one of the federal government’s criteria for assessing material damage to the aquifer has been exceeded.
Based on the same evidence reported to OSMRE, (the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement), NRDC determined that the structural stability of the aquifer may already have been compromised.
The stability of the aquifer is determined by evaluating its internal water pressure, which is determined by a measure called potentionmetric head, or the height to which confined liquid will rise when tapped by a well.
The government’s standard for the N-aquifer is that water in the well should rise at least 100 feet above the aquifer’s top; if the water level falls below this level, material, in this case structural, damage to the aquifer could occur.
NRDC’s report, based on a two-year study of the federal government’s and Peabody’s own data, found that in two of the 15 monitoring wells, the water level was only slightly above the top of the aquifer, nowhere near the 100 feet above the aquifer required by the assessment criterion. Since this criterion has been exceeded, “OSMRE’s finding that no material damage has occurred [to the N-aquifer] is without foundation,” according to the NRDC report.
When the Hopi and Navajo Tribes initially signed mining leases with Peabody in the mid 1960s, with the approval of the Department of the Interior, then Interior Secretary Stewart Udall was concerned that pumping a billion gallons of water a year from the aquifer might cause damage to the structural integrity of the aquifer, the quality of the water within the aquifer, or the discharge into seeps and springs fed by the aquifer. Secretary Udall put an escape clause into the leases stating that if Peabody’s water pumping adversely affected the aquifer in any one of those four ways, the use of groundwater from the N-aquifer could be stopped by the federal government.
Responding to concerns raised by the Hopi Tribe, Manuel Lujan, Secretary of the Interior during former President George H. Bush’s administration, initiated an Alternative Transportation Study to evaluate alternatives to the use of the coal slurry pipeline and to the use of N-aquifer water for the slurry operation. Phases I (a literature review on coal transportation by slurry and rail) and II (a look at other sources of water for the slurry operation, including a pipeline from Lake Powell, as well as a further examination of alternative methods for moving the coal) of the study were completed while Secretary Lujan deferred a his decision on permitting the Black Mesa mine.
Phase III, however, was put on hold when President Clinton took office and Bruce Babbitt was appointed Secretary of the Interior.
“Secretary Babbitt convinced the Navajo and Hopi Tribes to support shelving the alternative transportation studies and making the coal slurry pipeline issue part of the overall negotiations for the settlement of Little Colorado River water rights,” said Mr. Masayesva, who is a former chairman of the Hopi Tribe.
“That decision was like mixing apples and oranges,” he said. “The N-aquifer water is groundwater and the Little Colorado River is surface water.
“Secretary Babbitt lived with us all his life. Everyone said he would take care of the N-aquifer problem, but he just made its resolution more complicated.”
Last December, Secretary Babbitt refused to meet with Black Mesa Trust to receive a petition signed by more than 3,000 people representing, among others, most households on the Hopi Reservation. The petition requested that the Secretary invoke existing federal regulations to prevent Peabody Coal Company from continuing to use N-aquifer water to slurry coal to the Mohave Generating Plant, based on NRDC’s findings that one of the government’s own criteria for assessing damage to the aquifer had been exceeded.
The February 7 meeting in Denver comes partly as a result of the hundreds of letters sent to Secretary Babbitt by Black Mesa Trust supporters, said Mr. Masayesva.
During the meeting, Black Mesa Trust will present NRDC’s findings and conclusions, which include recommending that Peabody cease groundwater pumping from the N-aquifer no later than 2005 and that the company should reduce its use of N-aquifer water by December 31 of this year. In addition, the report recommends completion of the alternative transportation study begun in the early1990s during former President Bush’s administration.
“We hope that President George W. Bush will complete the work to save the N-aquifer that was begun by his father,” stated Mr. Masayesva.