Mohave demise leaves Black Mesa plan in limbo

By Marley Shebala, Navajo Times, June 14, 2007

WINDOW ROCK - Tomorrow, June 15, will mark one month since Southern California Edison threw in the towel in its battle to revive the Mohave Generating Station, sole customer for coal from the Navajo Nation's Black Mesa Mine.

On May 18, California Edison attorney Summer K. Koch informed the California Public Utilities Commission that it would drop efforts to find a new owner for the 26-year-old power plant, which closed in December 2005.

The company last year announced it would not attempt to restart the plant itself, primarily because the cost to install pollution control equipment was too high.

Koch stated that Edison also would stop funding an environmental impact statement for the so-called Black Mesa Project, a proposal to expand coal mining on Black Mesa and rebuild the aging slurry pipeline used to move the coal from mine to power plant.

The mine was operated by Peabody Western Coal Co. but it shut down when Mohave closed and Peabody's lease with the Navajo Nation expired Dec. 31, 2005. Over 100 Navajos lost their jobs in the shutdown.

Peabody still operates the adjacent Kayenta Mine, which supplies the Navajo Generating Station at Page, Ariz., under a separate lease with the tribe.

Peabody maintains that mining operations at the Black Mesa Mine are not over, but merely suspended and the company developed the Black Mesa Project to seek a "life-of-mine" extension on its lease.

An environmental impact statement is being done under the auspices of the federal Office of Surface Mining.

Peabody spokesperson Beth Sutton would not give a "yes" or "no" answer on whether Peabody would assume the cost of continuing the Black Mesa Project EIS, which is required under federal law.

Sutton would only say, "The EIS process is necessary for any coal development project on Black Mesa, and Peabody will be a proponent of this process."

She said Peabody was "disappointed" with SCE's decision to abandon efforts to sell or restart Mohave, but remained optimistic that Salt River Project, which owns the second largest share of Mohave after Edison, would continue discussing another use for Mohave.

Sutton added that Peabody, the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe "continue to seek coal-related opportunities that would allow the Black Mesa Mine to resume operations, which would greatly benefit the local economy and tribal members."

She also stated that Edison's decision has not changed the status of Peabody's Black Mesa Mine, which is a "suspension of miming activities rather than closure."

Edison, meanwhile, has asked CPUC for permission to conduct a $52-million feasibility study of sites suitable for coal gasification, a "clean coal" technique to produce electric power.

However, a utility spokesman said Wednesday that it would be a year or more before Edison could say whether the old Mohave site might be a focus of that study.

For us to examine a location we need several things, such as type of coal and is the site geologically suitable for carbon burying," said Gil Alexander, Edison spokesman, adding that the land's ability to trap carbon would be crucial to which site is chosen.

Sutton said Peabody has not abandoned hope of finding a new use for the Black Mesa Mine.

"Our goal is to resume operations at Black Mesa Mine, and we are continuing to explore the potential for other coal-related projects with the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe," Sutton stated. "Projects of this complexity and scope require a thoughtful process and long lead time."

As far back as 1999, however, Peabody and the tribes were put on alert when Mohave owners agreed to a six-year limit on continued operations because the plant violated federal air quality standards.

No alternative customer for the Black Mesa Mine has ever been named, despite the existence of at least three coal-fired power plants that were closer to the mine than Mohave.

One of the plants, the Coronado Generating Station hear Springerville, Ariz., expanded during that time, adding another generator. The new generator burns coal shipped in from a Peabody mine in Wyoming.

On May 23, the Navajo Times e-mailed President Joe Shirley Jr. several questions regarding Edison's May 18 decision and his strategy for the Black Mesa Mine.

George Hardeen, Shirley's spokesperson, replied in a May 23 e-mail that he needed more time to get answers but, as of press time Wednesday, had not responded further.

Shirley has been a staunch supporter of extending Peabody's lease on the Black Mesa Mine.

In January 2004, with the closure of Mohave looming, he signed a memorandum of understanding with Peabody, California Edison, SRP, the Hopi Tribe, OSM and other federal agencies for a study - to be financed by Edison, Peabody and SRP - to examine whether the Coconino Aquifer could be used to supply Peabody's needs, including continued operation of the coal slurry. (See separate story.)

Opponents of the Mohave plant, which was the dirtiest power plant still operating west of the Mississippi before it shut down, contended that the study was intended to make Mohave seem like a viable proposition for potential buyers.

But there were no takers for it anyway.

Meanwhile, a coalition of Navajo and Hopi grassroots organizations and environmental groups said it was not surprised by Edison's decision. (See separate story.)

If authorized, the proposed Black Mesa Project would consolidate Peabody's control of coal reserves on the mesa permanently.

It would also authorize construction of a coal-washing facility, two more miles of coal roadway for the Black Mesa Mine, 1,600 acre-feet of additional ground water usage annually, development of 12 to 21 water wells in Leupp, Ariz., construction of a new 108-mile pipeline to transfer water from the Leupp wells to the mine, and reconstruction of the 273-mile coal slurry pipeline.




Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.