Use of water for coal slurry challenged in Flagstaff

Noel Lyn Smith
Special to the Times

FLAGSTAFF –Every seat in the Coconino County board room was occupied and people squeezed around doorways to raise questions about proposed changes in the operation of the Kayenta and Black Mesa coalmines, located 125 miles northeast of here.

The Jan. 13 meeting was held by the federal Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement, which must decide whether to issue a revised permit to Peabody Western Coal Company for the mines.

Peabody’s proposed revisions include extending both mining operations to 2026, replacing 95 percent of the 273-miles Black Mesa coal slurry pipeline and switching to a different ground water source for the slurry.

Currently, Black Mesa coal is pulverized and mixed with water from the Navajo aquifer to create slurry that is transported by pipeline to the Mohave Generating Station at Laughlin, Nev.

Pressured by Native American and environmental groups to stop tapping the Navajo aquifer, Peabody is proposing to use the Coconino aquifer instead for most of its water needs.

However, the city of Flagstaff voiced concerns about that idea at last week’s hearing. Ron Doba, Flagstaff utilities director, read a Jan. 10 resolution passed by the city council, asking that the use of aquifer be re-examined.

Doba said Flagstaff now uses approximately 8,000 acre-feet of water, of which 90 percent comes from the C-aquifer. Future growth projections make it likely that the C-aquifer will continue to be Flagstaff’s main water source. An acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons.

If Peabody’s permit revision is approved, the C-aquifer would replace the N-aquifer as primary source for Black Mesa for all but 500 acre-feet annually. The N-aquifer would be used during emergencies or when the C-aquifer is not available.

The city cannot drill new water wells south or west of its borders because those areas are in a different watershed, and Arizona state law prohibits transfer of groundwater between river basins. Looking for resources in the north cannot be considered because it is unsafe to drill wells within the San Francisco Peaks area.

That leaves the city looking eastward, where the C-aquifer exists.

“We’ve been recently considering developing a ground water supply east of Flagstaff,”said Doba. “We’ve been looking at ranches out in that area. We have not made any purchases as of yet.

City officials requested that OSM re-examine the basic premise of using ground water for coal transportation, the same question raised by critics of Peabody’s present use of the N-aquifer water.

Scott Canty, lawyer for the Hopi Tribe, said that tribe continues its positions that Peabody should not use the N-aquifer for coal slurry production. The tribe would like OSM to completely analyze the continuing of the impact slurry has to the aquifer.

“They don’t believe it should be used for industrial purposes like this,”Canty said.

Peabody uses about 3,100 acre-feet of water each year from the N-aquifer. The tribe suggested OSM look at the benefits of preserving 4,000 acre-feet of water a year for the future drinking water needs of both the Hopi and Navajo tribes.

“These people on average use about 35 gallons per capita per day of water for their domestic needs,”Canty said, compared to 120-160 gallons by border town residents and 240 gallons used daily by each Phoenix resident.

Marie Gladue, a Big Mountain, Ariz. resident, challenged OSM officials to live on the reservation for a day to experience the conditions. She spoke about Black Mesa wasting water to generate electricity for California, Nevada and Arizona.

Meanwhile native people continue to haul water and those families living in Black Mesa’s backyard lack electricity, Gladue said.

During her testimony, Gladue recounted a story her mother told her about Black Mesa. Her mother said the goddess within the mesa is being slowly killed by the mining operation and the people are feeling the effects.

She said if the tribes have to continue depending on Peabody’s lease and mining operation, they should negotiate a better deal.

Manuel Pino, a member of Laguna-Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment, warned OSM that continuing to mine on Navajo and Hopi lands would result in both tribes experiencing the same impact as the Laguna people did from Jackpile, an open-pit uranium mine located near tribal land in New Mexico.

Pino mentioned his involvement with former uranium workers who suffered severe health problems and then had to fight for compensation from the federal government. He expressed that he did not want this to happen to Navajos and Hopis.

“At this point in time we have all these living historical experiences that emphasize environmental injustice, environmental racism, environmental genocide,”Pino said. “We have lost human lives as a result of development processes to satisfy the dominant society in their gluttonous lifestyle.

“We have felt in the past when dealing with the federal government regulation agencies …that they have no eyes and no ears,”he said. “They have no soul. They have no consciousness in regards to our spirituality, our culture and our way of life.”

Peabody submitted its life-of-mine revision application Feb. 17, 2004. This was the last in a series of public hearings conducted by OSM. OSM must issue a finding of no adverse environmental impact before Ok’ing the revised permit.

Black Mesa began operation in 1970 and is scheduled to provide cool through the end of this year. Kayenta opened in 1973 and would operate until 2011 under its current permit.


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