Elders fight to keep land

Peabody opponent says elderly suffer from stress disorder

By Kathy Helms
Diné Bureau

FOREST LAKE Eighty-seven-year-old Mae Paulinos is one of the Black Mesa elders suffering from symptoms commonly diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. But she is not by herself, according to Norman Benally, long-time Peabody opposition leader whose family home lies in the shadow of the mine.

"They have post-traumatic stress disorder, a lot of the elders do. It's like the same situation that the Vietnam veterans had after they returned from war," he said, because a lot of the cultural ties to the land have been destroyed over time.

He remembers seeing Black Mesa residents protesting over destruction of sacred sites. "But Peabody and the mine workers just went through them with the bulldozers. There's thousands of Navajo historic sites, sacred sites, even Anasazi sites that have been destroyed by strip mining.

"So that's where they get a lot of the stress. It affects their health and brings them down. That's what she's (Paulinos) had a real problem with."

Paulinos and Benally were among a group of residents who turned out Saturday at Forest Lake Chapter for a meeting on the C-aquifer, which possibly will be used to replace the higher-quality N-aquifer water Peabody now uses to slurry coal to Mohave Generating Station in Nevada.

Peabody hopes to expand its operation and increase its water usage. Residents want running water in their homes. They say they're tired of giving up their resources and getting little in return.

Paulinos lives on the same piece of land where she was born 87 years ago. She's spent her whole life there. She said she does receive some compensation once a year for the land but that it's not enough to live on.

She and her family have an underground storage tank which her children haul water to fill. "That's the only replacement water that they've gotten," said Benally, who recently toured Paulinos' home with members of the Navajo Nation Council's Resources Committee.

Paulinos lives in a house that Peabody built about three years ago, according to Benally. "I saw that there were some cracks already in the new house that they had built her. The other people said the ground was shifting, too."

Blast damage
Paulinos' home is located near Peabody's Kayenta mine, and the strip-mine operation is headed south, in her direction. She said she used to hear blasting, but that has now stopped. She said the ground shook also.

"There's a lot of blasting damage that does occur to the houses up there," Benally said. "During the public hearing here, one of the guys that had been relocated from HPL (Hopi Partitioned Land) said the relocation home they got from the Hopi land dispute was already getting cracks.

"Historically, Peabody said that a lot of the cracks in floors of the houses were because of the poor construction of the homes. Now, these are government-built homes and Peabody-built homes and they're experiencing the same problems."

Paul Clark of Black Mesa works at the mine. Even so, he takes issue with how the Navajo Nation and its people have been compensated for their coal. He said that years back, Peabody was paying "12-1/2 cents for anything that they get under from the earth. Then they wanted to raise up 7 more cents, saying, 'Now, I'm going to pay you 20 cents. I'll pay you 20 cents for this coal a ton.' "

"Then people agreed and didn't know anything about the prices like that, whether it was fair or not. That's how Peabody tricked the Navajo," Clark said.

"Then here, our leader says, 'Let's go for some more.' No! We've been ripped off. 'Let other countries get rich on us and we end up with nothing,' is that what he's saying to us? To me, our leader doesn't protect nothing."

Clark said he believes some tribal leaders do not want to see life improve for the Navajo people. He also questions those looking out for the legal rights of his people.

"The lawyers getting paid in Window Rock, they're not doing their homework for us. Seems to me that we're not going to get anything for what is in our land, and we're going ahead just to let somebody make it better for their future. Why do we have to be like that? It's got to be stopped."

Benally, interpreting for a 72-year-old grandma who didn't want her name used, said she lives a few miles from the J-7 area south of Black Mesa mine. She says the dust from J-7 strip mining and the strip-mine operation itself is coming toward her home. "She don't like it," he said.

Customary use
" Grandma" lives on customary-use lands which were determined before the mine came into existence. At the time, it was based on historical land use, with many of the customary use lands overlapping, according to Benally.

"Their kids inherited the customary land use rights, but their kids moved out of the area," he said. "So they're paying people that are not actually customary land users now. They pay people that moved away years ago. The real customary land users, a lot of them are cut out of it."

Grandma is one of the "unwashed" grassroots people of Black Mesa, as one union worker recently referred to them. "She said they used to use the bathhouse facilities over at the mine, and that they shut the community out of it; so they don't take a bath anymore. She said that's probably why they said what they said."

According to Benally, when Peabody leased the land, "they said if they took out a well or a spring or whatever, that they would replace it with equal or better value." Locals considered the bathhouse a replacement because the company removed the community wells, he said.

Residents' windmills and hand pumps and wells "that you throw a bucket down and scoop out the water, those have been taken out by Peabody. They were polluting it. The bathhouse, in our opinion, is one of the replacements for community wells that they decommissioned," he said.

Peabody has two water pipe stems, one by the Human Resources building and another in the northern section where Black Mesa residents and others from up to 50 miles away come to haul water, Benally said, adding, "After hauling water for livestock and home use, then you don't have much water left for bathing."

Grandma's home is in the Hopi Partitioned Lands area, which is also leased to Peabody. She feels she's under attack from two directions. From the south, the Hopi say she has to relocate. From the north, the strip mining operation is coming at her.

Interpreting, he said: "Her question is, 'Where am I supposed to go? Are they just going to come up and scoop us up with the drag line and dump us out somewhere?' She said she's been there all her life and she has no intention of moving, ever. The land is the only place she knows as home.

"She has a decent home, built out of her own pocket and that's her investment. She will never part with the land because she's tied to the land. She said despite all the harassment she's getting from the federal government to relocate, or the Hopi Tribe to relocate, or Peabody to relocate, she has really set her mind on remaining on the land and not moving."


originally posted in The Gallup Independent, June 21, 2005

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