Hopis sue over pipeline meetings

Sun Staff Reporter
Friday, May 4, 2007

A class-action lawsuit might soon settle the question: Can federal agencies conduct important business during ceremonial holidays when traditional Hopis are bound to be absent?

Former Hopi chair candidate Valjean Joshevama and religious practitioner Jerry Honawa have brought suit against the Office of Surface Mining, saying public hearings about a proposed pipeline to support mining operations at Black Mesa were ill-timed.

Public hearings on the proposed pipeline were held between November and February, a quiet time when traditional Hopis are prohibited from engaging in non-religious pursuits.

In these months, Hopi priests conduct ceremonies. Hopis are supposed to speak respectfully and conduct life-renewing ceremonies, according to legal filings.

It is not, said one attorney, the time for protests.

"The whole process has gotten skewed. Our clients were essentially excluded from it because it was held in the middle of their religious calendar," attorney David Abney said.

The Office of Surface Mining has since offered to extend the comment period, twice, and to give the two plaintiffs additional time to comment.

Abney said this is an attempt to "torpedo" his clients' suit without answering the real questions about whether there was a conflict with religious beliefs.

He is planning a class-action suit on behalf of all Hopis.

The lawsuit is based on the same law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that is the foundation for the Arizona Snowbowl lawsuit.

An attorney for the Office of Surface Mining filed documents from two people working for the Hopi government who said the timing of the hearings was acceptable to the tribe.

"We were told by the tribe that we were on good ground to do the original comment period when we did," said Dennis Winterringer, who is working on the proposal to tap the Coconino Aquifer east of Flagstaff to feed Black Mesa Mine and Mohave Generating Station.

The plaintiffs argue that these two individuals do not speak for the Hopi Tribal Council or the entire Hopi population.

And then the Office of Surface Mining has since granted additional time for public participation.

"A member of the Hopi tribe was up there on the reservation actually this week and was available to take persons' comments either in writing or orally," Winterringer said.

This is all after the original comment period, held during the religious holidays.

The proposed pipeline in dispute would send water from the Canyon Diablo area east of Flagstaff on a 108-mile trip to Black Mesa Mine, where it would be used to slurry coal another 273 miles to a power plant in Laughlin.

The power plant closed in 2005 after its owners signed an agreement with environmental groups ensuring they would either reduce emissions to legal levels or close the plant.

The costly retrofit was not made, which ultimately cost the Hopi and Navajo governments millions in jobs and royalties.

Since then, some of the owners have been attempting to sell their shares and get Mohave -- and the Black Mesa Mine that feeds it -- reopened.

"It's our understanding that there are some interested buyers," Winterringer said.

But under the plan, the mine could still use some water from the Navajo Aquifer that feeds Hopi, or even more of it than in the past if the new pipeline failed.

A hearing on the issue in Flagstaff in January grew heated, with opponents of the pipeline demanding a public hearing and Office of Surface Mining officials ultimately walking away from a shouting crowd.

Vernon Masayesva, founder of the environmental group Black Mesa Trust and a former Hopi chairman, said this is ultimately a cultural divide between a federal agency and a tribe.

He said most people on Hopi have not read the 758-page document describing possible pipeline plans, that it wasn't written in Hopi and that it wasn't easily summarized enough to be accessible to the average person.

The document did have an executive summary in English.

Office of Surface Mining played a video in Navajo and Hopi at public meetings.

Masayesva illustrates the divide by telling the story of any visitor coming to his home.

It is the norm to invite the visitor in and offer bread and water. Then the visitor eats and drinks.

Only then can the resident ask the visitor the purpose of the visit, Masayesva explained.

Hopis wanted the Office of Surface Mining to come to Hopi and to allow residents to make suggestions, instead of responding to one of several pre-designed plans for a pipeline.

"There's no respect for our culture, for our protocol, for the way we do business," he said.




Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law. http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html