Viewpoint: Justice delayed is justice denied

The words "Justice delayed is justice denied" are nowhere as true as they are on Black Mesa, homeland of the Navajo and Hopi people in northern Arizona.

In 1970, Peabody Western Coal Company, a subsidiary of Peabody Energy, opened the world's largest strip mine on Black Mesa. The purposes of coal mining on Black Mesa were first, to produce low-cost electricity to transport water from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson via the Central Arizona Project; and second, to supply a huge demand for electricity in the booming cities in the Southwest. Black Mesa became a sacrificial area for energy production.

The Hopi Tribal Council misunderstood the magnitude of the devastation the mining would wreak when in 1966, they approved the coal lease under pressure from energy companies, Arizona politicians, John Boyden (a lawyer for the Hopi Tribe, who was billing Peabody for expenses during coal negotiations) and Stewart Udall, former Interior Secretary.

Members of the tribal council did not know that in just 35 years, over 45 billion gallons of fossil water from a desert would be used to operate the world's only coal slurry operations, using enough water to supply 8,000 tribal members with drinking water for over 300 years. The Secretary of the Interior, serving as a trustee of the tribe's natural resources, approved the initial price of $1.67 per acre-foot (equivalent to 325,000 gallons). Pumping of the N-Aquifer is continuing, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Little did the Hopi elders know that by 1985, 168 impoundment ponds would be constructed to trap rainwater that used to flow into Moenkopi and Dinnebito Washes. The impoundment ponds were constructed to prevent sediments from going into the rivers of the U.S., in compliance with the Clean Water Act. The impoundments were designed to capture 728 billion gallons of water from a 70 square mile drainage area. The sediment and fresh water dams have a cumulative capacity of close to 1 billion gallons. According to Peabody's website, the impounded waters are virtually never dewatered as required by the U.S. Surface Mining Reclamation Act.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently produced information that toxic waters are seeping out of some of the sediment ponds and into surface and ground water. The remainder of the water - approximately 365 million gallons - evaporates each year.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) relies on Peabody's theoretical groundwater model to assure the Hopi people and the public that no "significant material damage" is happening to the N-Aquifer, and that the water are protected in accordance with mining regulations. This position has been refuted by experts hired by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Based on what they call "irrefutable" technical data, OSMRE has declined to require Peabody to pose a surface and groundwater reclamation plan and insurance. This is in direct violation of the U.S. Surface Mining and Reclamation Act, which is intended to keep the hydrologic system in balance.

Just as mining has caused irreparable damage to surface water and waters that lie deep below the surface, so mining has erased the footprints of Hopi ancestors who settled on Black Mesa while awaiting entry into Oraivi Village.

In a 20-year survey, starting in 1968, 1,026 historic sites and 1,596 prehistoric sites were recorded, according to Peabody's website. Only 168 of these were excavated. The study also located 178 burial sites. What happened to the remains of Hopi ancestors and the rest of the archaeological sites have yet to be fully revealed.

The Hopi-Tewa grassroots people wrote to President Obama four months ago, informing him of the damages occurring on Black Mesa. Obama has yet to respond.

Today, after close to 40 years of strip-mining, the Hopi and neighboring Navajo people still have no idea of the magnitude of damages done to Black Mesa, their sacred homeland. Only a Congressional oversight hearing will flush out the truth.

Perhaps in light of the oil spill in the Gulf, the too-close relationship between the Minerals Management Service and oil companies that led to the resignation of the head of MMS last month and the his promise to hold mining and oil companies accountable, President Obama will order an investigation into the Peabody Coal Spill.

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