FROM THE ARCHIVE
Hopi Tribe disputes Peabody water study
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THURSDAY, AUGUST 30, 2001

For a number of years, Peabody Energy -- overseers of the world's largest coal company -- has tried to assure critics that its 30-year old strip mine operation in the Black Mesa region of northeastern Arizona hasn't been detrimental to the environment.

The effort appears to have had little success.

That hasn't stopped the company from trying, though. In yet another look into a drinking supply used by members of the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation, Peabody this week released the results of a study it says proves the system isn't being affected.

By comparing a three-dimensional model that was devised two years ago with actual data taken over a four-year period, Peabody says it has come up with an accurate picture of its water usage. According to Peabody, the amount it takes from the Navajo Aquifer -- a huge water supply the size of Delaware -- is comparable to taking a sip out of a fire hose.

Except the fire hose is bad analogy in this case. And so is the sip. Although the aquifer holds more than 200 million acre-feet of water, Peabody takes out more water per year -- 3,800 acre-feet -- than goes into the system -- an average of 3,000 acre-feet -- through rainfall and snow melt

And, the company admits, it uses more water per year to transport coal from the Black Mesa mines to a Nevada generating station 270 miles away than the Hopi and Navajo tribes use combined.

That has left the Hopi Tribe, for one, skeptical of Peabody's latest claims.

"We've had so many people go to springs for water supplies and ceremonial purposes," said spokesperson Clare Heywood. "For years, they've been saying: 'There's something wrong, there's something wrong.'"

Their complaints, however, didn't get much response. "Nobody tends to listen to non-scientific observations," said Heywood.

Validation for the tribe came with a study by the National Resources Defense Council. Released last year, the study found water levels at number of wells and springs have decreased and that the "recharge" rate of the aquifer is not enough to keep up with the demands placed on it.

Coupled with growing populations in both Hopi and Navajo communities, the study helped put into concrete terms the tribe's worries. "The NRDC study has merely quantified what elders and religious societies have been saying for years," said Heywood.

Not surprisingly, Peabody doesn't think highly of the rival study which casts doubts on its own claims.

"We believe the NRDC paper uses selective information and has misinterpreted data," said Peabody spokesperson Beth Sutton. "And we would respectfully disagree with the conclusions of that paper."

The NRDC defends its study, which was supported by former tribal chairman Vernon Masayesva. Andrew Wetzler, an attorney for the council, said the conclusions were based on real, not theorized, data.

"It's a theoretical computer model," said Wetzler of Peabody's efforts. "That's the difference between the study we performed. Our report was based on the government's own monitoring data . . . of wells and springs throughout the Hopi and Navajo reservations."

Added Heywood: "Hydrology is rather a dubious science. Modeling is based on what you put in. We question the data that they [Peabody] use to put into the model."

Despite the disputes, however, there is some movement to find a solution to the issue. In what chairman Wayne Taylor is calling an "unprecedented step," the two tribes, Peabody and other energy companies have been discussing ways to find alternative water sources, both for drinking water and for the company's coal mine.

"We have worked for nearly a decade to achieve this objective," said Taylor, whom Heywood says deserves the credit for bringing the parties together.

Yet while many would like to see Peabody abandon its use of the aquifer altogether, the water problem won't necessarily be solved, say tribal officials. Hopi village leaders predict that fast-growing populations who place increased demands on their ancient water system will cause wells to dry up as early as 15 years from now.

But the tribe believes the new discussions are "a major step in the right direction," said Heywood.

Peabody pays the tribes $900 per acre-foot of water it takes from the aquifer. By the company's own figures, their mining operation adds about $2 million each week to the tribes' economies, whether it be royalties, taxes, wages or benefits.

Peabody also says its revenues make up about 80 percent of the Hopi Tribe's annual budget and about 40 percent of the Navajo Nation's general budget.

Relevant Links:
Peabody Energy - http://www.peabodyenergy.com
The Hopi Tribe - http://www.hopi.nsn.us
The Navajo Nation - http://www.navajo.org

Related Stories:
Court rules Navajo Nation owed money (8/14)
Peabody mining protested (4/3)
Peabody defends water usage (3/26)
Peabody Coal fought Bush's promise (3/26)
Peabody denies Navajo 'conspiracy' (3/20)

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