New report finds violations of federal protections for tribal water, faults government oversight
LOS ANGELES (March 16, 2006) -- A bid by coal mining giant Peabody Energy to increase by 50 percent its use of water at the Black Mesa mine threatens the main source of drinking water for many Hopi and Navajo in northeastern Arizona, according to a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
NRDC said new data contradict the government's claims that Peabody's groundwater pumping is within legal limits established to protect Hopi and Navajo water supplies. Peabody's recent petition for "life of mine" access to Navajo Aquifer (N-Aquifer) water should be denied, NRDC said, because the aquifer already has suffered "material damage."
The NRDC report, entitled "Drawdown: An Update on Groundwater Mining on Black Mesa," says new data show an aquifer in decline and that decades of industrial pumping already have caused the aquifer material harm according to the U.S. government's own criteria.
"Government bureaucrats are ignoring clear violations of their own rules to protect the aquifer," said Timothy Grabiel, principal author of the NRDC report. "They have let Peabody pump billions of gallons of pure drinking water to sustain its antiquated industrial coal slurry operation. The government should deny Peabody's request, heed its own monitoring results and fix the flaws in its oversight system."
Until late last year, Peabody annually withdrew more than a billion gallons of drinking water from the aquifer to produce coal slurry, a pulverized coal and water combination that was transported by pipeline 273 miles to the Mojave Generating Station, a power plant in Nevada. Although the power plant recently was shut down in a consent decree over air pollution, Peabody is seeking to extend its permit to operate the mine, anticipating that the power plant may be retrofitted, and come back online. Peabody's mine permit application assumes indefinite access to Navajo water.
The U.S. Department of the Interior has claimed that available information shows that there is no evidence the aquifer has suffered "material damage," a scientific threshold established under federal law. But NRDC's report disputes that, citing the government's own field data. For example, in its 2000 report "Drawdown: Groundwater Mining on Black Mesa," NRDC reported that 6 of 15 monitored wells had dipped below a critical 100-foot threshold, established to protect the aquifer from internal collapse and contamination. The update finds that water levels at most of the wells have continued to decline, including two monitoring wells that have periodically dipped below the top of the aquifer itself. Likewise, water flow from springs that provide potable water, and possess great cultural and religious significance to the Hopi, are producing significantly less water after years of massive withdrawals. Evidence of accelerating contamination of the N-Aquifer also is evident in some locations, a finding that hydrologists believe is associated with changes in pressure in the N-Aquifer due to years of industrial pumping.
The N-aquifer is a vital water source in the Black Mesa region not only because of the dearth of water in this semi-arid climate, but also because it is a pristine drinking water source, satisfying the Environmental Protection Agency's standards for drinking water out of the ground. Other aquifers above the N-aquifer are brackish and not suitable for drinking water, or are low-yielding.
Peabody has been mining coal on the Hopi and Navajo reservations since the 1960s, following exploration agreements with the Native American Indian Nations. Under the agreements, the tribes receive royalties for coal that is extracted. Because of concern at the time about possible damage to the aquifer caused by the massive water pumping (on average, 3 million gallons a day), then-Interior Secretary Stewart Udall included an escape clause to the agreement. Yet despite numerous studies and now-obvious signs of negative impacts, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), an agency within the Department of the Interior, maintains that there has been no material damage, and it has failed to invoke the escape clause.
The Office of Surface Mining in Denver, Colorado is now processing Peabody's application for a "life of the mine" permit. Peabody has specifically requested to increase its water usage to more than 6,000 acre-feet per year, approximately 50 percent more than it has historically used. (An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of land one-foot deep.) The increased water withdrawals would continue for the next 20 years. OSMRE is expected to release its draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Peabody application next month.
"The use of over 1 billion gallons of precious, clean water in one of our nation's most arid regions to slurry coal is a colossal waste," said David Beckman, co-author of the original Drawdown report and project director of the Drawdown update. "There are alternatives to this wasteful practice, such as using methanol-based slurry, substituting low-grade water, re-circulating the same water through the system more than once, or other forms of transport that do not rely on slurry."
NRDC's report recommends immediate action to conserve the N-aquifer water supply as well as long-term solutions that would reduce reliance on it. NRDC recommends that OSMRE deny Peabody's request to increase N-Aquifer pumping; improve the N-Aquifer's monitoring program; and work with the tribes to manage resources. Finally, NRDC recommends that, with tribal consent, the N-Aquifer should be designated as a "sole source aquifer" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, an action that would strengthen protection of this vital drinking water source.
NRDC works on Black Mesa in conjunction with many local partners, including the Black Mesa Trust. "The Black Mesa aquifer has been a source of pure drinking water for Native Americans for over a thousand years," said Vernon Masayesva, former chairman of the Hopi Tribe, and current executive director of the Black Mesa Trust. "Peabody's continued drawdown of this vital resource is an insult to our cultural and religious heritage."
"Drawdown: An Update" incorporates technical analysis of water monitoring data provided by the environmental consulting firm LFR Inc.
Black Mesa Trust: Vernon Masayesva 928/380-5201
Peabody Energy: Beth Sutton 505/287-2636