The Department of the Interior and the Office of Surface Mining is set to grant the Peabody Energy Company, the largest coal company in the world, further expansion into Black Mesa, Arizona. Peabody already mines extensively in the region, and in addition to the standard environmental degradations that strip mining causes, Peabody uses precious water to transport coal slurry to power plants in Nevada.

Peabody Coal has asked the Interior Department to grant the company a “life of mine” lease, which would give Peabody unfettered access to the coal in Black Mesa until the coal runs out. As if this weren’t bad enough, Peabody is also looking to expanding it’s 270 mile pipeline capacity in order to ship more coal slurry to Nevada. The impact of this could further deplete the N(Navajo)-aquifer in Northern Arizona, an area noted for its arid landscape. The Hopi and Navaho tribes in the area are concerned that the increase in water usage could ultimately drain the aquifer, on which the Hopi and Navajo are solely dependent for water.

It has been determined that the N-aquifer has already suffered a decrease in over 50% in the forty years since Peabody started slurry transport in the Black Mesa Coal Mine. This is an area that may receive only 7 to 10 inches of rainwater a year, which in turn recharges the aquifer. However, if the water taken out is grossly disproportionate to the water going in, then the problem of scarce water resources in the West will become a disaster. Currently, 50 gallons a second are being pumped out of the aquifer to be mixed with pulverized coal and shipped off to Nevada to power the homes of Arizona, Nevada and Southern California.

There is also a question of contamination of the pristine waters of the aquifer. As this source of water is depended on for residential and agricultural purposes, any toxic contamination of these waters could further harm not only the land, but also the people and the livestock. Furthermore, like any pipeline, there is the continual problem and danger of spills. When these spills do occur, the slurry water can contaminate surface waters and additional water sources.

Other issues at hand include the tribal considerations in regards to the Hopi and Navajo beliefs that the water is sacred. Both tribes count several natural springs in the area as spiritual areas used in tribal ceremonies. Furthermore, the tribes fear the loss of archeological sites if the Peabody Company is allowed to expand. Both tribes have been fighting Peabody’s use of the aquifer waters for years, only to be disappointed in the Office of Surface Mining’s continued support for the coal slurry pipeline, considered by most to be an outdated form of coal transport.

Currently, the Peabody Company has a pending application for their expansion in the Black Mesa area. The Office of Surface Mining has allowed a period of public comment on the current plan and report that ends February 6. However, this short month-long open comment period just happens to have been scheduled during the Hopi Tribes’ ceremonial two-month period of refraining from all secular matters. To make matters worse, some tribal members are accusing the OSM of not distributing the 780 page report to all parties involved. And on top of all that, the OSM is only accepting comments that directly refer to paragraphs and items in the report. Many are accusing the Interior Department and the OSM of making the process of protest difficult in order to allow the expansion of Peabody to continue without a hitch.

Grassroots organizations and environment groups are attempting to mount campaigns to stop Peabody’s expansion and continued use of N-aquifer water. At one point, Peabody had suggested an alternate plan of using the water from the Colorado River to transport the coal, but as the Colorado has also suffered severe depletion, that plan has been shown to be as ineffectual as the continued use of the Navajo Aquifer.

Water resources in the Western United States is at a critical point, and many feel that the transport of coal slurry is a waste of precious water. If the coal at Black Mesa is going to be mined, and as the US’s appetite for energy grows unabated, then more effective and ecological friendly methods are going to need to be devised by our government, before it is too late.

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