Feds approve Black Mesa life-of-mine permit

By Cindy Yurth, TSÉYI Bureau, Navajo Times, January 8, 2009

CHINLE – In a move that surprised no one, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining gave Peabody Western Coal Co. a Christmas present, approving the company's application to roll the closed Black Mesa Mine into the life-of-mine permit for the Kayenta Mine.

The record of decision, available for download at www.wrcc.osmre.gov/, was published Dec. 22.

Peabody's spokeswoman Beth Sutton said the move gives the company more "flexibility" in the use of its coal leases, although any new mining in the Black Mesa Complex, as the incorporated leases are being called, will still have to be approved by OSM.

Local environmental groups decried the decision, arguing that to extend a life-of-mine permit when there is no identified customer for the Black Mesa coal and no clear plan of operation amounts to giving Peabody a blank check

"This decision will uproot the sacred connection that we have to land, water, and all living things on Black Mesa," stated Wahleah Johns of the Black Mesa Water Coalition in a press release from that organization.

Hopi Tribal Chairman Ben Nuvamsa, who resigned last Wednesday amid political turmoil, had opposed the permit. He noted it gives the Navajo and Hopi tribes, who jointly own the mineral rights, less leverage to renegotiate leases and assert more control over their resources.

The Hopi Tribal Council's Energy Team, however, has given its blessing to the permit - one of the bones of contention between Nuvamsa and the council.

President Joe Shirley Jr. has gone on record in favor of the permit, pointing to the increased royalty revenue and jobs that would be generated by renewed mining.

The Black Mesa mine shut down three years ago when its sole customer, the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev., ended operations rather than spend billions retrofitting to comply with modern emissions standards.

Unlike the new permit, the coal slurry pipeline that supplied the station will not be reopened, removing the need for the 4,000 acre-feet of Navajo Aquifer water the pipeline used annually. However, the Kayenta Mine, which supplies the Navajo Generating Station near Page, will continue to use about 1,200 acre-feet per year for its day-to-day operations.

The 19,000-acre lease associated with the Black Mesa Mine, and all its existing facilities, will be incorporated with the already permitted 44,000 acres of Kayenta Mine, bringing the total permitted acreage to nearly 63,000 acres.

Included in that acreage is approximately 6,000 acres of coal reserves that have never been mined. The new permit does not allow Peabody to mine this land. However, the company could apply for mining authorization after submitting a detailed plan of operation.

Sutton said the company is hoping the 700-page environmental impact statement prepared for the permit is thorough enough that no new environmental research will have to be done in the event the company wants to mine that coal.

"Hopefully, most of the groundwork is laid and it gives us some flexibility in our future direction," she said.

But Nuvamsa and others have accused the company of wanting to combine the mines to assure that the present leases, which are in effect only as long as there is an identified customer for the coal, stay intact. This way, the tribes will not have the opportunity to renegotiate for higher royalties, or investigate other possible lessees, they contend.

Sutton said the tribes can and do approach Peabody bout the leases at any time.

"We're in constant communication with the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe about our mining operations in the joint use area," she said.

Peabody had been attempting to obtain a life-of-mine permit for Black Mesa for 18 years, but OSM had declined previous applications until opposition by many locals to the use of the N-Aquifer to slurry coal could be resolved.

According to the record of decision, the demise of the pipeline makes the water use a moot point.

In the document, OSM also argues that the area will actually have more environmental protection under a permanent permit.

"Because the permanent regulatory program contains a more comprehensive set of environmental protection measures than the initial regulatory program, a higher degree of environmental protections will be afforded this area when it is permitted," the document reads.

The environmentalists are having none of it.

"The permit process was flawed and clearly rushed through before President Bush leaves office," states Black Mesa Water Coalition co-director Enei Begaye in the group's press release. "We are looking into our options for how to stop this process from moving forward, including legal action."


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