Black Mesa studies to resume, slurry appears dead
By Marley Shebala, Navajo Times, APRIL
WINDOW ROCK – The 38-year-old Black
Mesa Pipeline is retiring.
The federal Office of Surface Mining
has directed the pipeline’s present owner, Black Mesa
Pipeline Co., to remove all trace of the structure,
which was used to transport coal slurry from the Black
Mesa Mine to the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin,
“BMPC must take down all structures
and facilities owned by them, regrade the area, and
revegetate the area under the interim regulations of
the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977,”
said John Stucker, the tribe’s senior mining engineer,
in an April 10 memo. “If we have any need for these
facilities we need to communicate with BMPC soon.”
At the same time, federal officials
plan to resume studies of another alternative for Black
Mesa coal, Stucker said in the memo, which was directed
to the Navajo Nation Black Mesa environmental impact
The EIS had come to a halt after no
buyer for the Mohave Generating Station came forward.
Its owners close it in 2005, rather than invest $1 billion
needed to make it meet federal clean air standards.
The announcement that work on the EIS
will resume signals a high probability that discussions
are once more underway between the tribe and Peabody
Western Coal Co., which operated the Black Mesa mine
under a lease that expired in 2005.
The generating station was the mine’s
sole customer, and the pipeline was the sole method
of transporting coal from the mine, so the mine closed
when the power plant did.
That fact, along with a recent court
ruling that the tribe is owed millions in back royalties
on the coal, had chilled negotiations to renew Peabody’s
lease and make permanent the company’s control of all
coal reserves on Black Mesa.
Stucker declined to comment on his memo,
saying that Navajo Nation attorney General Louis Denetsosie
had instructed him to not talk to the media.
“I’m not supposed to talk about it,”
he said. “It was a government deal. It was an internal
message to the Black Mesa EIS team and it wasn’t to
be released to people. It’s nobody’s business. When
it becomes official, OSM will put out an explanation.
They are the lead agency and the tribe is working cooperatively
Denetsosie did not return multiple calls
this week seeking comment. President Joe Shirley, Jr.
also did not return a call for comment. His spokesman,
George Hardeen, said Shirley was in Washington, D.C.,
to testify on water rights.
Retirement of the 273-mile pipeline
is tied to the unexpected reactivation of the Black
Before the reactivation, the draft environmental
assessment centered on Alternative A, which envisioned
Peabody continuing to ship coal to Mohave via the slurry
pipeline. Production would also increase at the nearby
Kayenta Mine, which sends coal via an electric train
to the Navajo Generating Station at Page.
Plan A also involved reconstruction
of the 273-mile coal slurry pipeline, construction of
a coal-washing facility, two more miles of coal hauling
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. and construction
of a new 108-mile pipeline to transfer water from the
Leupp wells to the mine.
The plan did not explain how Mohave
which closed in December 2004 with no plans to reopen,
would use the coal.
A majority of the people providing comments
to OSM on the draft study opposed Alternative A.
OSM suspended work on the environmental
review May 18, 2007, after Southern California Edison,
one of the Mohave owners, announced its decision to
discontinue efforts to find a buyer wiling to restart
the power plant.
Stucker, in his April 10 memo, stated
that the EIS will not shift its focus to Alternative
B, which still assumes that Peabody would control rights
to all Black Mesa coal reserves in a lease or leases
that continue until the coal is gone.
Under plan B, the Kayenta Mine would
continue to supply the Navajo Generating Station, but
there is no customer for the Black Mesa Mine.
Peabody spokesperson Beth Sutton shed
no light on this point in an e-mail Tuesday, saying
only that “Operation of the Black Mesa Mine facilities
will remain temporarily suspended.
“We continue discussions with both tribes
on coal related opportunities. Subsequent agreements
to use the reserves and facilities associated with Black
Mesa Mine would require a separate permit action,” Sutton
Water in question
Alternative A called for pumping large
quantities of ground water from the Coconino Aquifer
to replace the Navajo Aquifer, on which much of Black
Mesa depends for its water supply.
Alternative B would use far less water,
but the C Aquifer is still under consideration, according
“Since the alternative B does require
water, the ‘C’ aquifer will be considered as an alternative
water source to cover the minimal needs of the mine
for shipment of coal to (Navajo Generating Station),”
Stucker said in his memo. “No firm decision has been
reached as to how it will be completed; however, Peabody
Western Coal Company will be the only proponent for
the project to my knowledge.”
Plan B “permits the mining of coal from
the entire lease area and allows some use of the ‘N’
aquifer for mining uses, delivering the coal to the
Navajo Generating Station,” Stucker wrote.
Peabody’s Sutton said in a second e-mail
that any resumption of activity at the Black Mesa Mine
would require a separate permit, and that it will not
be combined with the Kayenta Mine to supply the Navajo
Alternative B “affirms the longstanding
plan for Kayenta Mine to continue producing approximately
8 million tons per year. It also includes continued
use of the Navajo Aquifer,” she stated.
In 2003 the Navajo Nation Council passed
a resolution calling for an end to industrial uses of
the N aquifer, specifically use by Peabody and the Black
Mesa Pipeline, after Navajo and Hopi grassroots organizations
rallied communities in opposition to the practice.
Local residents and the Hopi Tribe said
that within a few years after large-scale withdrawals
began, seeps and shallow wells in the area were drying
up. Despite a long barrage of scientific studies asserting
that pumping from the aquifer was not drying up surface
water sources, critics argued that the coal slurry ran
counter to common sense.
The 2003 resolution carried no legal
force, but Peabody and the pipeline owner agreed to
look for an alternative water source.
Meanwhile, Peabody continues to use
the N-aquifer for its Kayenta Mine operations, albeit
at a fraction of what it was using before Mohave, the
Black Mesa Mine, and the coal slurry shut down in December
Also in December 2005, the tribe’s lease
with Peabody for the Black Mesa Mine, as did the lease
for the slurry pipeline.
The cost of environmental impact statements
is paid by those who stand to make money from the projects
under review, so the study was stopped when the stake
holders decided Mohave was dead and notified OSM they
would not continue funding the Black Mesa EIS.
That Peabody is now asking to resume
the study raises the question of whether a new deal
is in the works between Peabody and the tribe.
When black Mesa shut down, the tribe
had not agreed to extend or renew Peabody’s lease because
it was still trying to recover coal royalties it claimed
it should have received from the mine.
The coal royalties are the subject of
a $600 million lawsuit. In 1999, the tribe sued the
U.S. Interior Department and Peabody to increase royalty
rates on Black Mesa coal.
The nation’s 1999 lawsuit is tied to
a 1985 Interior decision that blocked the Navajos from
increasing Peabody’s royalty payments from 2 percent
to 25 percent. Instead, the tribe settled for an increase
of half that, 12.5 percent rate.
According to federal records, while
the Navajo Nation, Peabody and the BIA were re-negotiating
the royalty rates, then Interior secretary Donald Hodel
met with Peabody representatives and later suppressed
a BIA staff finding that supported the tribe’s position
on a 25 percent coal royalty rate.
Hodel’s action, and the BIA document,
were unknown to the Navajo Nation before 1999. A federal
court threw out the complaint against Hodel, but allowed
the suit against Peabody to go forward.
It was believed that the federal court
had ordered negotiations between the Navajo Nation and
Peabody over its $600 million until Attorney General
Denetsosie, during an Oct. 11, 2007, press conference,
said he asked the federal court to call for negotiations
in an attempt to save the 300 jobs at the Black Mesa
Shirley and his administration had gotten
as far as negotiating a draft settlement of the lawsuit
by March 2006. It contained sweeping changes to the
way water, coal, and other natural resources are governed
on tribal land, and would extend Peabody’s coal leases
on Black Mesa.
However, the settlement was leaked to
the media, prompting enough controversy that it was
never brought before the tribal council for approval.
Then, on Sept. 13, 2007, a U.S. Court
of Appeals in Washington, D.C., in a stunning reversal
of lower court rulings, said the federal government
owes the Navajos damages for violating its trust responsibility
in connection with the Peabody leases.
Bolstered by the federal ruling, Denetsosie
said negotiations were over and the nation was moving
forward with its lawsuit to recover lost royalties from
But the reactivation of the Black Mesa
environmental review could mean a return to the negotiating
table, especially if there is a possibility of the Black
Mesa mine reopening.
At press time, Wednesday, OSM had not
announced its reactivation of the Black Mesa study,
and neither Richard M. Holbrook, OSM southwest branch
chief, nor Dennis Winterringer, OSM southwest branch
environmental protection specialist, had returned calls
from the Navajo Times.
Calls to Paul Pertuit, Black Mesa Pipeline
Co. spokesperson, also were not returned.