Navajo Nation Must Move away from Coal Mining 

by Marshall Johnson, Special for the Republic
Arizona Republic
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.

The Obama 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.

Arizona being 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 workers.

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.

What water remains underground after their excessive use is threatened by leaking waste ponds.

Coal waste 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.

Defenders of 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.

For short-term 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 community.

Currently, the 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.

We can 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.

Marshall Johnson 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.



Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.