by Marshall Johnson, Special for the
22 June 2010
The April 5
disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that
killed 29 coal miners has brought a renewed attention to the
issue of mine safety.
administration has announced a review of existing regulations
and Rep. George Miller publicly released a list of the 48 mines
with a pattern of serious safety violations. Only one from
Arizona made the list.
the top copper-producing state in the country, you might think
it was one of the numerous copper mines. Or maybe one of the
gold or silver mines that dot the state.
In fact, it was
the Kayenta Coal Mine, located way up on the Navajo Reservation,
just a few miles from where I grew up.
A brief look
through the citations from the Mine Safety and Health
Administration in just the past month reveals an "accumulation
of combustible materials," heavy machinery in disrepair, lack of
adequate first-aid equipment and much more. An immediate
investigation of the Kayenta Mine is needed to protect the
But the safety
concerns of the Kayenta Mine go beyond the dangers of tunnel
collapse or explosion. In 1967, the Peabody coal company began
operating two strip mines on top of Black Mesa: the Kayenta and
Black Mesa mines.
On average, they
have used more than a billion gallons of our pristine water each
year to wash and transport the coal, water down roads and clean
their industrial facilities. The Navajo Aquifer, our sole source
of drinking water in the region, has seen major decreases in
water levels and shows signs of structural damage.
remains underground after their excessive use is threatened by
leaking waste ponds.
contains heavy metals, such as mercury, lead, thallium and
arsenic, which can cause birth defects and nervous- and
reproductive-system disorders. And as community residents have
complained for years, the 250 waste ponds in the area regularly
overflow and appear to be leaking in some locations.
Kayenta Mine point to the 425 jobs (only some of which go to
Navajos) and the fact that royalties from the mine are the
second largest source of tribal revenue after federal funds.
But what happens
when the coal runs out? Over 40 years of operation, the most
easily accessible coal has already been dug out, and estimates
of remaining reserves are significantly unreliable. Coal mining
is a short-term crutch.
royalties and a few jobs, our tribal government looks the other
way while mining activities take an irreparable toll on the
health of the people and the environment of Black Mesa. When our
coal has run out, Peabody will move on to devastate another
Navajo Nation Council is considering legislation to renegotiate
the coal-mining lease with Peabody. Before the spring council
session a few weeks ago, I rode 100 miles on horseback carrying
a message from Black Mesa to the Navajo capitol to tell our
leaders: There is another way.
transition to long-term, sustainable economic-development
opportunities like clean-energy manufacturing and installation.
We can also sustain traditional Navajo life ways, revitalizing
agriculture and supporting hogan-based small businesses.
of Forest Lake, a community on Black Mesa, is director of the
non-profit organization To Nizhoni Ani, which means "Beautiful
Water Speaks" in Navajo.