sue over pipeline meetings
By CYNDY COLE
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
It is not, said one attorney, the time
"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
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
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
The document did have an executive summary
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
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,"