Federal agency failed to monitor AZ coal mines’ water use, report says

Arizona Republic
18 Min Read

Coal mining depleted areas of a critical aquifer in the Black Mesa region of the Navajo Nation, but a federal agency didn’t consider the losses environmentally damaging, researchers concluded in a new study of the aquifer in northern Arizona.

The researchers detailed what they said were failures by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to hold the Peabody mining company responsible for the environmental effects of coal mining in the Black Mesa area.

The findings of the study, conducted by the Institutes for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, didn’t surprise Nicole Horseherder, executive director of Tó Nizhóní Ání, a group working to protect Black Mesa water, among other things.

“I think their study is very accurate,” Horseherder said. “I think it reflects in a more general term most of the issues that we have. Every report I have seen them do has always been very thorough.”

The study, published in July, said the reclamation office, part of the Department of Interior, did not address Peabody’s overuse of groundwater in the region and had still released two of Peabody’s three reclamation bonds. 

The government holds coal companies accountable for reclaiming land damaged during mining operations and requires the companies to post bonds to guarantee the cleanup work. The money is returned to the companies only after they have reclaimed the land to standards set by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

A spokesperson for the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement defended the agency’s work.

“OSMRE thoroughly evaluates all permitting actions and makes decisions with a rigorous foundation based in sound technical, regulatory, and legal principles,” wrote Francis Piccoli, communications director for the agency, in an email to The Arizona Republic. “To ensure compliance with all environmental performance standards, OSMRE regularly monitors and inspects all mining and reclamation operations.”

Years of mining left environmental consequences

Peabody Western Coal Company operated the Black Mesa mine from 1965 until its 2005 closure, and the Kayenta mine from 1973 until 2019. The mines produced an average of 14 million tons of coal per year and pumped billions of gallons of groundwater from the Navajo Aquifer, also known as the N-aquifer, one of the only potable sources of water in Black Mesa.

For four decades the mines dominated a corner of northern Arizona. But while they provided well-paying jobs for community members, the electricity generated by the coal was sent out of the region, to Southern California, farther south in Arizona and to Nevada, leaving locals with the damage to the environment.

The sacrifice from both Navajo and Hopi people who lived there, those who were relocated for the operation and those who continue to live in the area where the strip mines were located, will forever linger, advocates like Horseherder say, especially on land that is a shadow of its former self and in the depleted N-aquifer.

Horseherder said she and Tó Nizhóní Ání have always pushed for reclamation and transparency, even before the mines closed. She acknowledged there is evidence of some reclamation before the mines completely shut down, but there are many questions yet to be answered, such as how the companies will work with communities on which roads will stay and which roads will be part of reclaimed land.

“We started pushing for certain issues with reclamation and trying to bring forth the information around the methodology of reseeding, how they’re deciding what goes where,” Horseherder said. “How they’re deciding where the drainages are, how they are deciding how water sources are going to go back in, are just very different aspects of reclamation.”

The N-aquifer is the main source of water in the 5,400-square-mile Black Mesa area, which includes the Navajo Nation and Hopi reservation, and the effects of coal mining on the aquifer is a widely discussed topic. 

“The N-aquifer is one of the most studied aquifers,” said Horseherder, but because it’s so complex, people who are familiar with it often say there is less known about it compared with how much it’s been studied.

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How government oversight led to water overuse

For almost 50 years, Peabody’s mines operated on tribal lands, depleting scarce water sources, but the Interior’s office of mining reclamation did not include water use or aquifer depletion in its considerations of environmental damage caused by Peabody, the report said. 

“In this case, the lands are intended to be grazing areas for livestock,” the report said. “However, livestock need potable water as much as the communities that raise them. And damage to the N-Aquifer also means damage to the herds, since depleted groundwater levels prevent livestock from finding natural springs. 

“This oversight demonstrates a flaw in OSMRE’s criteria for environmental reclamation and a failure on the part of the DOI to hold Peabody accountable and uphold its trust responsibilities to the Navajo and Hopi tribes in Black Mesa,” the report continued.

The coal mined at Black Mesa was made into slurry and pumped to Mohave Generating Plant in Laughlin, Nevada, using an estimated 1.3 billion gallons of water annually. In 2021, the Arizona Department of Water Resources found that an average of 3.5 homes can be served every year by a single acre-foot of water. One acre-foot is approximately 325,851 gallons of water, meaning Peabody used roughly the amount of water that could supply 14,000 households in a year, according to the report. 

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has disregarded the aquifer’s overuse, both in meetings and reports, researchers said. The office also has refused to consider the region-specific aspects of reclamation in Black Mesa, according to the report.

“The communities hold strong cultural and material connections to the land,” according to the Institutes for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis report. “Damage to the N-Aquifer threatens the ability of the Navajo and Hopi communities to continue to live on their ancestral lands as access to water becomes scarcer. The office’s only nod to water issues in connection with the bond release concerned water quality, not water use.”

According to the Institutes for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the total surety bonds held for the mines is $178.6 million. The release of $17.3 million in bonds ($12.7 million in Phase I bonds and $4.6 million in Phase II bonds) constitutes an approval by the federal government of Peabody’s reclamation efforts at the former mines, and its work restoring the land for an approved use.

The release of the bonds “disregards the fact that OSMRE has been on notice for decades about the material damage to Peabody’s use of water from the Navajo Aquifer (N-aquifer) in the Black Mesa region,” stated the the Institutes for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis report.

Peabody can’t receive the third bond until a minimum of 10 years after the release of the Phase II bonds, and the Phase III money is conditional on survival of the flora planted during the reclamation process without human assistance for a decade. 

“The office’s only nod to water issues in connection with the bond release concerned water quality, not water use,” stated the report. “OSMRE remarked that Peabody’s mining had a minimal effect on the quality of the water in the N-Aquifer.”

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Local leaders say the mines wrecked the land

In March, the International Committee on Monuments and Sites International Science Committee presented the Hopi grassroots organization Black Mesa Trust, the Water and Heritage Shield. It was designated for the Sípàapu, a limestone dome that sits on the banks upstream from the confluence of the Little Colorado and the mainstem Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which the Hopi call Ӧngtupqa. 

“They wrecked our sacred lands in Black Mesa by allowing this huge mining company to come up and they used huge amounts of water,”  said Vernon Masayesva, chairman of Black Mesa Trust. “They used the water from underground, pumped it up, cold filtered water, and used that to make coal slurry and moved it into another state. The United States Government, the Secretary of Interior, allowed that and we were paid $1.67 per acre feet. The Federal Government allowed them to go home so they can close shop and leave us with a wreck.”

Horseherder said the N-aquifer is deep, and she sees two issues. The government has given no specific information about how the shallow part of the aquifer, which has been mined through, will be remediated by Peabody, or if it will. She said she questions whether the company will be required to remediate and how, but these questions are never answered. 

She said there is evidence of damage to the N-aquifer, which leads to the second issue. There are six data points — wells that are being studied — and only two of the six show recovery. 

“I’ve asked, ‘That’s two points that show recovery, at what point do you determine without a doubt that the entire hydrologic system is recovering with just two data points or do you make sure all the data points show recovery?’” Horseherder said. “That is something that wasn’t answered. For me just seeing two data points recover and not the rest showing recovery is not enough for me.”

Horseherder and others said they feel dismay toward the federal government, but she said they’re also frustrated by the Navajo Nation government and its years of inaction and indifference to this issue.

“This is the stuff that is falling through the cracks and not getting to the nitty gritty,” Horseherder said. “This is something the Navajo Nation should be concerned about, especially with the water crisis we are having. We should be absolutely vigilant about every single water source, especially clean ones. We should be out there holding companies and agencies accountable to make sure there is a recovery happening, and if not, then safeguards should be in place.”

She expressed astonishment at the lack of urgency from past tribal council leadership and past Resource and Development members. Although there were committee meetings and tours of the mines, not all Navajo leadership were in attendance, and not much has come of it. 

Aside from meeting with the previous administration’s oversight committee, she also noted that letters had been sent to the Department of Interior, former Navajo Nation president, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

The current Navajo Nation Resource and Development Committee chair, council delegate Brenda Jesus, said the findings in the Institutes for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis report “exemplifies how our federal counterparts are failing to act in the interests of the Navajo People to address the environmental injustice that resource extraction and surface mining have had on communities impacted by the Black Mesa Peabody mine.”

“For decades up until the mine was closed, Peabody used approximately 3 million gallons of water from the N-aquifer every day to support the mine’s slurry operation. Our people have depended on this water supply for years and were never justly compensated,” Jesus said.

“How can the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement disregard the restoration of these aquifers that provide life to our environment and our people,” Jesus said. “The federal government needs to provide meaningful consultation with our people and step up to the responsibility of reclaiming this groundwater aquifer.”

Other concerns mentioned by the the Institutes for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis stem from as far back as 2006, when the Natural Resources Defense Council examined four criteria set by the cumulative hydrologic impact assessment required by Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. It found that Peabody had failed to prevent material damage to the N-Aquifer and the overall hydrological balance of the area.

Natural Resources Defense Council reviewed a flow model Peabody developed to justify its water usage in cooperation with U.S. Geological Survey and Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and found that it was “inadequate to address all relevant consequences of mining on the hydrologic balance” and “is otherwise flawed in important ways that destroy its utility and credibility,” according to the Institutes for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

The report also found that in 2008, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement released a new hydrological assessment for the region which changed the criteria for material damage.

“The new CHIA essentially alleviated the burden on Peabody to meet the standards of the previous assessment by removing “criteria expressing the declining trends identified in this (audit)” and revising the remaining criteria to give Peabody “insurmountable damage thresholds,” Institutes for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis stated.

In 2011, Daniel Higgins, an adviser to the Black Mesa Trust on water resource management issues, submitted public comments on Peabody’s permit renewal application for the Kayenta mine. He said, “Despite the declining trends in the monitoring data, and despite the evidence of mine-related impacts in prior public comments, OSMRE maintains that all declining trends are the result of either tribal community withdrawals or recent drought conditions.”

Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement eliminated all of the material damage criteria for the specific mine-related effects in 2008, the report said, which gave Peabody “a free pass on future and existing damages related to material damage of the aquifer, and making it possible for the remaining $161 million in bonds to be returned without Peabody ever having to address the damage it caused to the N-Aquifer.”

Peabody officials did not respond to The Republic’s requests for comment.

Arlyssa Becenti covers Indigenous affairs for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to [email protected].

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2023-08-30 01:56:50 , GANNETT Syndication Service

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