The debate rages over coal-mining at Black Mesa, Ariz.

A judge’s decision earlier this year to halt the expansion of coal-mining at Black Mesa near Kayenta, Ariz., drew cheers from environmental groups opposed to the mines. But a closer look reveals that celebration may not really be in order.

“Peabody Western Coal Company’s Black Mesa Coal Complex has suffered a major setback as an Administrative Law Judge for the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) vacated a permit for the massive coal mining complex,” announced the Sierra Club and other environmental groups in a Jan. 8 press release, under the title “Hopi and Navajo Residents Stop Peabody’s Coal Mine Expansion on Black Mesa.”

The language is strange in part because no one involved with the mine – least of all Peabody Energy or the federal Office of Surface Mining, charged to regulate it – has noticed the major setback.

“Kayenta mine continues operating in a business-as-usual fashion with its existing permit,” said Beth Sutton, an Arizona-based Peabody spokeswoman.

Added OSM’s Rick Holbrook, who manages the agency’s Western Indian lands program: “Their permit allows them to continue operations at the Kayenta mine. There is enough coal in mining areas approved for mining to last until 2026.”

The Kayenta mine still supplies coal to the 2,250-megawatt Navajo Generating Station, 80 miles away in Page, Ariz. The other part of the Black Mesa Complex, the Black Mesa mine, went dormant with the shutdown of the Mojave (Nev.) Generating Station in June 2006.

Peabody is angling to secure a new permit in the hopes that the company can find a new customer for the remaining Black Mesa coal by 2026. The celebrated order represents little more than a slowdown in that process: Judge Robert Holt vacated a December 2008 permit granted by the Office of Surface Mining for a proposed expansion by Peabody because he found that the OSM had failed to conduct an adequate analysis of the proposal, which had been substantially changed from the time it was first prepared. Therefore, OSM will have to reconsider the permit and gather more information this time around.

So why all the rejoicing? Possibly because mining opponents have little else to celebrate, in the ongoing march of Peabody Coal through Navajo and Hopi lands.

Controversial giant

Peabody Coal is the world’s largest private coal company, “with 2009 sales of 244 million tons and $6 billion in revenues,” boasts the company’s web site. “Its coal products fuel 10 percent of all U.S. electricity generation and 2 percent of worldwide electricity.” A real-time counter representing tons of coal sold in 2010 tics up too fast to track: 36,960,903 and climbing, at press time.

The Black Mesa Complex contains hundreds of millions of tons of coal that’s world-renowned for its quality; Peabody has been making bank on the deposit. The company runs 28 coal operations, and Black Mesa has long been one of its brightest stars.

It’s also been costly. Charles Wilkinson, a legal scholar at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote in his 1999 book “Fire on the Plateau” that the mining tore up graves, forced 36 traditional Navajo sheepherders to relocate, and polluted the air and water.

“One Hopi woman, a cautious, conservative person, told me the mining and air pollution were like rape,” he wrote.

Members of both tribes remember those original hurts, as well as new insults that have come with the mine’s ongoing feeding off the land. Many of those people are the activists who have formed groups like the Black Mesa Water Coalition and Diné Alliance, both of which have joined with the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups to fight the mines.

As just one example, water is a major ongoing source of strife at Black Mesa. The Hopis are a traditional farming people who rely on springs to irrigate their crops. But many of them are struggling to cope with springs they say were decimated by water withdrawals for the 273-mile pipeline that slurried coal to the now-defunct Mojave Generating Station. A 2000 report and a 2006 follow-up analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council corroborated the link, using data from OSM, the EPA and Peabody.

“The Office of Surface Mining has not done anything about reclaiming the water that Peabody has pumped out of the aquifers, which is now over 45 billion gallons,” complained Vernon Masayesva, a former Hopi chairman and executive director of the Black Mesa Trust.

Perspectives at odds

The Peabody leases were signed at a time when the tribes had little power to protect their interests, in terms of economy, human or environmental health. Over time, both tribes have made extraordinary strides in regaining that power and building the level of respect that’s appropriate for fully functioning governments.

Injustices remain. But today, the business- savvy elected leaders at Navajo and Hopi say even if the judge’s order were a thorn in the side for purveyors and regulators of Peabody coal, that wouldn’t be good news. Because today, $3 billion in tribal revenue from mining (as estimated by Peabody), including jobs for Navajo workers and a smaller number of Hopis, is part of the tribes’ hard-won power.

The Hopi tribal council got its back up last fall, and issued a unanimous statement that environmentalists weren’t welcome on the reservation, owing mostly to their role in the shutdown of Mojave and the consequent loss of up to $8.5 million a year in revenues for the tribe.

Navajo Nation president Joe Shirley quickly issued a statement supporting the Hopi decree.

“Unlike ever before, environmental activists and organizations are among the greatest threat to tribal sovereignty, tribal self-determination, and our quest for independence,” Shirley wrote. “By their actions, environmentalists would have tribes remain dependent on the federal government, and that is not our choice.”

George Hardeen, spokesman for the Navajo Nation, said environmentalists’ celebration of the closure of Mojave has continued to rankle the Navajo government.

“Nobody was saying anything about the people who lost their jobs. There was no compassion,” he said. “That bothered President Shirley. He spent 16 years as a professional social worker. He has a lot of empathy for people who lose their jobs on the Navajo Nation.” And beyond economic hardship, Hardeen said, job losses can lead to an erosion of culture – especially when tribal members are forced to leave the reservation to find work.

However, an environmental activist like Masayesva falls into a more privileged position, given that he’s also a Hopi tribal member.

“The council is controlled by what I call pro-Peabody [interests],” Masayesva said, “people who do not represent the feelings and positions of the grassroots people. They only speak for themselves and Peabody Coal Company.” His view could be fueled partly by an ongoing awkwardness between a centralized government formed at the behest of white influences and the traditional, village-based leadership with which it has never fully meshed.

In the bigger picture, Masayesva said, “Every Hopi is an environmentalist. Being Hopi means being an environmentalist. Every Hopi knows that we are supposed to be protectors, guardians of the Earth.”

Beyond 2026

Although the official tribal positions blast environmentalists’ perceived goal of stopping all mining at Black Mesa, Masayesva says that’s not the position of all the activists.

“The Hopi people are not opposed to mining, per se. We have a teaching handed down hundreds of years about the wealth at Black Mesa. . . underneath us. We are opposed to the destructive way that coal-mining is now being done. Strip-mining is the most destructive way to mine coal,” he said.

Peabody, meanwhile, has worked hard despite the decades of controversy to portray its mining operations as being environmentally sound and progressive. Sutton, the company spokeswoman, said Peabody has a solid track record of compliance with Department of Interior requirements and EPA regulations for clean air and water.

“Peabody has a good record of compliance with the Clean Water Act and believes the issues raised by groups long opposed to mining are frivolous,” she said.

Moreover, Sutton said, a lot of good can come from mining. Peabody as a whole, for example, “is pursuing a dozen global projects and partnerships to advance near-zero emissions and carbon-management technologies.”

She said the company has been culturally sensitive in its dealings with the tribes, and points to $360,000 in annual tribal scholarships as well as reclaimed lands “that are typically 20 times more productive for grazing than native range. A first-of-its-kind cultural plant program restores plants and herbs used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes.” Last fall, that program won the Arizona State Mine Inspector’s inaugural Best Reclamation Award.

But the relationship isn’t all rosy. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled against the Navajo Nation when it sued the Department of Interior for $600 million and accused the department of failing to uphold the tribe’s interest. At issue were 1987 lease amendments that set coal royalties at 12.5 percent – well above the rates laid out in the original 1960s leases, but far below the 20 percent the tribe wanted. The tribe had produced evidence that shady wrangling by Peabody executives had resulted in the lower royalties – which are still in effect today – but the argument found no purchase.

“It’s not as if the Navajo Nation and Peabody walk in lockstep on every issue,” said the Navajo Nation’s Hardeen. “That’s not to say the Navajo Nation is eager to evict Peabody. Clearly, we need the jobs.”

Masayesva wishes that the Navajo and Hopi tribes would join together in demanding redress for what he sees as a litany of ongoing environmental, health and cultural insults. But he knows that won’t happen without action against Peabody by the tribal governments, which have indicated just the opposite intention. His hope for change lies in the longer term.

“I’m going to predict that Navajo Generating Station is going to shut down in 2026,” he said, citing tightening environmental regulations, including a pending revision of EPA rules for Peabody’s water emissions. Right now, Peabody’s discharge permit doesn’t regulate anything but temperature, but new rules would include limits for selenium, nitrates, and other heavy metals and toxic pollutants.

“When Peabody has to pay the true costs of mining, and owners of [the Navajo Generating Station] have to pay the true cost of generating energy, it’s going to be very, very expensive,” Masayesva said.

And if he’s right, Masayesva sees an opportunity – and ample time — for the tribes to be ready to replace the lost energy production with renewable energy sources.

“That’s what Hopis and Navajos should be doing — looking for the bright side,” he said. “We need to be optimistic. The people who will do it right, and become a showcase for the world, are Hopis and Navajos. That’s what I would like to see: Hopis and Navajos coming together and making a vision for the future.”

From March 2010.