Viewpoint: Economic, social and environmental justice for Black Mesa

In 1970, a chain of dynamite exploded, ripping Black Mesa - a sacred homeland to Hopi people - apart. Deep-water wells were sunk into the earth. Hopi elders stood helplessly by as the world's largest strip-mining began. Their worst fears had become a reality.

For 40 years, a span nearly equal to the time the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness, grave injustices have persisted on Black Mesa, and there has been no calling to account. For 40 years, we have paid dearly for a grievous mistake made in our name by the newly created Hopi Tribal Council and John Boyden who single-handedly negotiated the Peabody Coal lease while billing Peabody Coal Co. for expenses.

Shackled by a contract, a rapacious foreign mining corporation was given the right to mine 400 million tons of coal (through subsequent amendments, the tonnage of coal has risen to 670 million tons on 62,000 acres of land) and to pump over one billion gallons of water each year for 35 years to transport coal out of Arizona to the Mohave Generating Station (MGS) in Laughlin, Nev., in violation of Arizona's water transfer laws.

For a price that began at $1.67 per acre-foot (one acre-foot=325,000 gallons; about the size of a football field with water one foot deep) of non-renewable pristine groundwater, Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall brushed aside the federal government's trust duty to Hopi and Navajo and approved the water and coal leases for Peabody to operate strip-mining on Black Mesa.

The modern non-traditional Hopi Tribal Council was deceived and pressured to accept a contract of abuse. A piece of paper that was authorized by a federal government, bent not to its trustee responsibility to protect the natural and cultural resources of Hopi and Navajo people, but to the insatiable energy appetite of corporate America that University of Colorado law professor Charles Wilkinson called the "Great Build-Up" of the American West.

And the people of Black Mesa bore the price of this "Great Build-Up." Our homeland was designated as a "national sacrificial area." The over-drafting of waters by Peabody Western Coal Co. has disrupted the geological architecture of the Navajo Aquifer, the internal integrity of our source of life. By the end of 2005, when slurry pumping ended, over 45 billion gallons of water - enough water to sustain a Hopi population of 8,000 people for over 300 years - was gone in just 35 years, sanctioned by the federal government in violation of its fiduciary responsibility.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) is sole owner of Central Arizona Project (CAP), a majority owner of Navajo Generating Station (NGS), which buys about two million tons of coal annually from Peabody, which they oversee as sole regulators of mining operations.

The DOI, through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), helped its sister agency, Office of Surface Mining and Resource Enforcement (OSMRE), put together an environmental impact study, favoring Peabody by stating that the impacts of strip-mining will cause no "significant material damage" to land, water and cultural resources of peoples indigenous to Black Mesa. DOI, through BOR, also carried out the NGS and Black Mesa Mine Environmental Impact Study in the 1970s. DOI's portfolio is managed by Salt River Project (SRP) in what appears to be a "trustee-trustor" relationship.

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

During a 20-year survey starting in 1968, an archaeological field school hired by Peabody found 1,026 historic and 1,596 prehistoric sites, of which only 168 sites were excavated. The study also located 178 burial sites. What happened to the rest of the remains of Hopi ancestors and the ancestral villages, has yet to be revealed. This demands a full investigation. The federal government is responsible for the destruction by failing to carry out its trust duty.

Recently, the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office succeeded in dropping the term "Ruins" from Homolovi State Park near Winslow, done on the Hopi belief that Homolovi was never abandoned and that the spirits of our ancestors are still there. This is the same reason why Black Mesa Trust (BMT) is determined to stop strip-mining, which is destroying our ancestral villages and resting places of our ancestors on Black Mesa. Our success in helping other parties shut down coal slurry operations in 2005 is evidence that Hopi people are now empowered to take control of their resources and destiny.

In a letter to President Barack H. Obama in December 2010, Hopi elders describe the archaeological villages as their "living museums, a cathedral and academy of our oral traditions."

Now, an accounting must be made. Years of injustice must be addressed for the squandering of trust and goodwill, and for the injury and the rape of our lands. It is not charity we seek, but justice and resources to empower the pursuit of a culturally appropriate opportunity to secure our economic independence, our sovereignty, and our place upon these lands for eternity.

The uncertain future of the Navajo Generating Station, which is the only customer of Black Mesa coal, has presented a unique opportunity for its owners, including DOI, to sit down with the Hopi and Navajo people to finally bring about economic justice and equity, and at the same time create stability for NGS; in other words, a "win-win" resolution.

BMT has prepared a visionary proposal on how this can be done.

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