Peabody defends water usage
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MARCH 26, 2001

Responding to charges that the world's largest private coal company is threatening the water supply of the Hopi Tribe of Arizona and the Navajo Nation, Peabody Group last week released a report officials say proves its strip mine operation in northern Arizona is environmentally sound and safe.

But opponents of the company's Black Mesa mine operations, including members and officials of both tribes, aren't likely to be swayed by the report, issued last Thursday. And since coal mining provides significant economic benefits for both tribes, the issue isn't likely to be resolved quietly.

Yet the tribes aren't content to see their natural resources exploited without having their say. The Navajo Nation is seeking $600 million in coal royalties, alleging the company conspired with the Department of Interior to cheat them out of their money. The Hopi Tribe joined the lawsuit as an affected party.

The water the company consumes, however, is shaping up to be an even bigger sticking point in the decades old dispute. In an area where water is both sacred and scarce, critics say the company is slowly draining billions of gallons of the precious resource from Hopi and Navajo communities just to satisfy the energy needs of consumers hundreds of miles away.

Although the coal Peabody mines comes from the Black Mesa, its destination is a Southern California Edison Co. power plant in southern Nevada. But instead of transporting the coal via railway or highway, the company pulverizes it, mixes it with water, and sends it to Nevada through a 270-mile pipeline.

To complete this part of the operation, the company purchases 3,800 acre-feet of water from both tribes every year for about $3.5 million, or about $900 per acre-foot. Since beginning its operation nearly 30 years ago, the company has taken some 1.3 billion gallons from a water source called the N-Aquifer.

Although the N-Aquifer contains more than 200 million acre-feet of water, the Natural Resources Defense Council says the supply is being overused. In a report released year, the Council said water levels have decreased by more than 100 feet in a number of wells and discharge from a number of springs has decreased by 50 percent.

But in a $2 million study, Peabody is defending its water usage and says it will end up using only one-tenth of 1 percent of the total volume of the N-Aquifer during the entire run of its operation. Company officials compare the usage to "taking half a soda can from a 55-gallon drum."

"The results [of the study] confirm that the fraction of water used is insignificant when you put the aquifer's vast size into perspective," said Fredrick D. Palmer, executive vice president for legal and external affairs. "The pipeline system continues to be the most environmentally sound way to convey coal to the Mohave power plant."

Yet even the company admits it uses more water from the aquifer than the tribes themselves. The tribes currently consume 2,800 acre-feet from the N-Aquifier and usage is expected to increase 2.7 percent annually.

Coupled with the aquifer's "re-charge" rate of 2,500 to 3,500 acre-feet per year, tribal communities will continue to see water resources strained unless Peabody stops using the coal pipeline, says the Council. Along with former Hopi Chairman Vernon Masayesva, the Council is urging the Department of Interior to reconsider Peabody's water usage, especially in light of pending water rights issues on the Little Colorado River affecting a number of tribes in Arizona and New Mexico.

Mining revenues are about three-quarters of the Hopi Tribe's annual budget. A large portion of the Navajo Nation's budget also comes from coal revenues.

The Department of Interior was unavailable for comment.

Get the National Resources Defense Council Study:
Groundwater Mining on Black Mesa (NRDC October 2000)

Relevant Links:
Peabody Group -

Related Stories:
Peabody denies Navajo 'conspiracy' (Tribal Law 3/20)
Tribe fights mine (Enviro 10/25)
Navajos can't sue Hopi Tribe (Tribal Law 04/19)
Navajos win a round in suit against Peabody coal (Tribal Law 04/06)