American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Mining and Contemporary Environmental Problems

Mining, most notably of gold, has been one of the primary motors of invasion of the New World. Columbus had gold on his mind, as did Cortes and many other Spanish conquistadors. The discovery of gold deposits played a major role in the Cherokees' Trail of Tears, the invasion of the Black Hills, and the dispossession of Native peoples in California. The Lakota holy man Black Elk called gold the yellow metal that drives white men crazy.

Native peoples' problems with mining continue today. With the coming of an economy based on fossil fuels and other forms of industrial energy, coal and uranium have joined gold as targets of opportunity (and sources of pollution) on many Indian reservations. What follows is a small but indicative sample of this issue as it plays out in Native America; more complete descriptions of mining pollution afflicting Native nations in the United States fill many books and articles.

The Hopis and Navajos: Turning Black Mesa to Coal Slurry

Coal burning generates more than half of the electricity consumed in the United States, and a sizable percentage of that coal comes from strip-mines on American Indian reservations. One example is the large electricity-generating complex on the Navajo nation at the Four Corners, the conjunction of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. Since 1974, the Mojave Generating Station and the Navajo Generating Station have been polluting the world's air. The Mojave Generating Station alone uses 18,240 tons of coal per day at full load. Combined, the two plants require 12 million tons of coal a year and are the largest polluters in the country. Astronauts saw the pollution cloud from these coal-fired plants from the moon (Giuliano, 2001). The six Four Corners coal-fired power plants, completed in the 1970s, emit pollution that on some days fills the local atmosphere with higher levels of sulfur and nitrogen oxides than the air of New York City or Los Angeles (Schneider, n.d.).

A significant proportion of the coal that powers the Four Corners power plants is strip-mined from Black Mesa, Arizona, home of the Hopi Indian Reservation (which is also home to several thousand Navajo) and the site of a Peabody coal mine. On Black Mesa, Peabody Western Coal Company (a subsidiary of the Peabody Group) uses more than 3 million gallons a day (1.4 billion gallons a year) of once pristine, potable groundwater that leaves the aquifer as coal slurry, a coal-and-water mixture.

The aquifers that once provided 60,000 people on Black Mesa with water were by the year 2000 being depleted much faster than nature could replenish them. Computer models run by hydrologist Ron Morgan indicate that by 2050, not even allowing for Peabody's coal-slurry needs, "virtually every spring on the Hopi homelands will be bone dry" (Vandevelder, 2000, 14). Morgan also estimates that by 2050 the aquifer will have been drawn down at ten times the rate that it is being recharged. "All the computer models tell us that these depletions are right around the corner," according to Morgan (Vandevelder, 2000, 14).

The slurry pipeline, which was owned by Enron Corp. before its bankruptcy, transports its coal-water mix 273 miles to the Mojave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada, where it is converted into electricity for the use of consumers in Nevada, California, and parts of Utah and central Arizona. In the meantime, many of the Dine (traditional Navajo) who live at Black Mesa and in most other areas of the reservation have no electricity.

In the late 1990s, the Hopi Nation complained that Peabody Coal was underpaying for its coal. The resulting renegotiation increased the company's payments by 10 percent, or about $1 million per year. The deal was sweetened by a $1 million bonus paid at the signing of the agreement. By 1998, coal revenues accounted for nearly 40 percent of the Navajo Nation's governmental budget and 80 percent of the Hopi Nation's budget (Four Corners Clamor, 1998). One critic asked, "Will this increase help the 50 per cent unemployed Navajo out on the Rez, and will it raise the yearly average income of $750? Since the wells under the Rez are almost dry, from whence will come the water needed to move this coal to Albuquerque and Nevada?" (Four Corners Clamor, 1998).

Many Navajo and Hopi moved from the path of the growing Peabody mine, accepting the company's offer of new homes with plumbing and solar power. Others, however, have decided to remain in their traditional homes. Maxine Kescoli is one of a number of elders who have refused to move to make way for expansion of the coal mine. Peabody has mining rights to the land under her traditional Navajo hogan, which is one mile from the Kayenta Mine. "My umbilical cord is buried here," Kescoli said (Four Corners Clamor, 1998).

To illustrate why she prefers to remain in her traditional home, Kescoli called on hozho, the Navajo foundation of belief, "To walk in beauty." This belief runs counter to the exploitation of coal and other resources. This clash is evident not only at Black Mesa, but in many areas of the Navajo Nation where coal is mined. Emma Yazzie, another elder, herded sheep and goats in the shadow of the Four Corners' strip mine draglines until she died, even as pollution fouled her home. She walked to the bottom of strip mines near her home and impeded the draglines—a one-woman, antimining protest movement (Johansen and Maestas, 1979, 143–146).

The clash of cultures is very sharp:

During the past 30 years, 10,000 Navajo sheep-herders have been removed from land near Black Mesa, some at gunpoint. Four thousand graves and sacred places have been desecrated. Charges are that the Peabody Coal Company, U.S. agents, and Hopi police have impounded livestock illegally. . . . All of the wells may be dry within four years. Peabody Coal plants trees as "restoration." All of the trees are dead. This is not "walking in beauty" (Four Corners Clamor, 1998).

Before the mid-1970s, Black Mesa was home to several thousand Navajo and Hopi sheepherders, weavers, silversmiths, and farmers whose families had lived there for several hundred years. Over the years, many of these people were forced off Black Mesa by the encroaching strip mine. During the late 1980s, a United Nations report described the case of the forced relocation as one of the most flagrant violations of indigenous peoples' human rights in the western hemisphere (Black Mesa Indigenous Support, n.d.-a).

Coal-fired power plants emit more toxic pollution than any other form of electricity production. For every megawatt hour of electricity produced, coal, depending on its composition, generates an average of 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, 13.8 pounds of sulfur oxides, 4.8 pounds of nitrogen oxides, and 3.2 pounds of particulate matter. By comparison, natural gas emits an average of 1,205 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, 0.008 pound of sulfur oxides, 4.3 pounds of nitrogen oxides, and negligible particulate matter (Giuliano, 2001).

The scope of Peabody's operation at Black Mesa can be sketched using statistics: During 1998, for example, Peabody Western Coal Company removed just under 11.8 million tons of coal from its Arizona mines. Since mining began on Black Mesa three decades ago, close to 40 billion gallons of groundwater have been pumped to feed Peabody's coal-slurry pipeline. With the pipeline conveying as much as 43,000 tons of slurried coal per day, the company pumps as much as 120,000 gallons of water per hour (Black Mesa Indigenous Support, n.d.-b). The coal slurry competes with local residents for the only source of water for the Hopi and Western Navajo. By the late 1990s, Peabody's strip mine at Black Mesa had expanded to 100 square miles, "the largest privately-owned coal mine in the world" (Black Mesa Indigenous Support, n.d.-a). Into this pit have fallen burial and sacred sites, religious structures, and ancestral Puebloan ruins.

The U.S. government has relocated 9,000 Navajos to Sanders, Arizona, on land contaminated by the largest radioactive waste spill in North America, in and near the Rio Puerco. According to one source, "Some people living there have died from cancer or are dying from it now. The birth defect rate is outstanding. . . . The suicide rate is outstanding as well" (Black Mesa Indigenous Support, n.d.-a). A radiation meter outside a school on the relocation lands registers 700 rads. The relocation agents have resisted complaints that the "new lands" are contaminated, by saying that people will be unaffected if they do not drink the water (Schneider, n.d.). There is, however, no other water source in the area. People live in trailers, their traditional economy and way of life destroyed.

Other families of Navajo refugees from Black Mesa have drifted from place to place for many years. Some live in shacks, others live in vehicles, while the lucky ones squeeze in with other family members (Black Mesa Indigenous Support, n.d.-a).

Others [have] found themselves having to pay for water, heat, food, electricity, [and] taxes, things they never had to deal with before. Many of the elders speak little or no English— people who had no experience with a cash economy have been moved to border towns. These Navajos were warehoused in substandard housing. . . . While the relocation law required the federal government to provide community facilities and services and to minimize the adverse social, cultural, and economic effects of relocation, that promise remains unfulfilled almost two decades later. Many find it impossible to get jobs, and they are forced into homelessness. The genocide is complete (Black Mesa Indigenous Support, n.d.-a).

Iyawata Britten Schneider wrote in Country Road News: "In Arizona, the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs created a land dispute between the Hopi and Dine people by acquiring land and paying the Dine large sums and the Hopi next to nothing. This land dispute was then used to support the passage of the Relocation Act of 1974 that forced the move of 10,000 Dine to 'new lands.' This relocation brought with it increased health risks, high suicide rates, and severe depression among the Dine. The movement of the Dine allowed for the leasing of more land for the coal mines" (Schneider, n.d.).

Coal mining is antithetical to traditional herding and agriculture in the region. According to Schneider:

Because the southwest is arid and has high winds, coal dust can be seen on the sheep herds, on the land, in the water supply and the air. Residents of the coal mining areas suffer from chronic lung disease and high cancer rates. Livestock drinking water from nearby ponds die within a few hours and traditional crops fail. In its reparation [sic] of land, Peabody does not separate the topsoil from the bottom, leaving the soil with high saline content. Vegetation has not survived in this soil (Schneider, n.d.).

The Black Mesa coal-slurry pipeline is also prone to occasional spills, such as one that occurred over two-and-a-half years between 1999 and 2001. Black Mesa Pipeline, Inc. agreed to pay penalties of $128,000 for discharging almost 485,000 gallons of coal slurry in northern Arizona. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality discovered the violations during a series of inspections of Black Mesa's facilities. "Had the pipeline been properly maintained, these spills would not have occurred," said Alexis Strauss, water division director for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Pacific Southwest Office. "Desert ecosystems are quite fragile, and filling arroyos with crushed coal is unnecessary and unacceptable" (Arizona Water Resource, 2001).

Increasing numbers of Hopis and Navajos have been protesting the fact that Peabody's use of local water is destroying their way of life. Former Hopi Chairman Ferrell Secakuku joined Navajos from Big Mountain in 2001 to protest the use of aquifer water for the Black Mesa coal slurry and to urge the creation of new, sustainable forms of energy. "We found out the water table is being depleted," Secakuku said, denying reports by the federal government and Peabody Western Coal Co. that have claimed otherwise (Norrell, 2001). Secakuku spoke to a crowd of American Indians and other environmentalists that included longtime opponents of Navajo relocation at Big Mountain. Secakuku and other protesters entered the offices of Black Mesa Pipeline, Inc. to urge officials to halt the slurry pipeline that annually depletes 1.3 billion gallons from the Navajo aquifer. He said using water to transport coal threatens to leave the Hopi village of Moenkopi without water by the year 2011. "Every time you breathe, Peabody is pumping 50 gallons," Secakuku told the crowd (Norrell, 2001). During the protest, Roberta Blackgoat held a sign proclaiming, "The Creator is the Only One who is Going to Relocate Me" (Norrell, 2001).

In defense of the mine, Peabody Coal's John Wasik, executive for southwestern operations, said: "Continued operation of the Black Mesa Mine is in the public interest and will provide long-term economic benefits to the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation. It also provides an essential and secure energy supply for more than 1 million Southwest families who rely on [it for] electricity." Peabody further maintains that the mine "will inject about $1.5 billion in direct economic benefits into reservation economies in royalties, taxes, wages, and vendor contracts over the proposed extension [of mine operations]" for fifteen years, from 2005 to 2020 (Wana-maker, 2001, C-1). The mine employed about 250 people in 2002; 96 percent of the mine's work force and 82 percent of its supervisory staff were Native American, according to the Peabody company (Wanamaker, 2002, C-1).

Having lost much of their precious water to coal mining and power generation, the Hopis by 2005 faced a new and paradoxical mine-related threat: unemployment. The mine is shutting down because the sole power plant it supplies, the Mohave Generating Station, is closing under a legal agreement with environmental groups that sued because of repeated pollution violations. The closures could force the layoff of at least 150 of the Hopi Tribe's five hundred employees. In addition, 13 percent of the Navajo Nation government's nonmine labor force would lose jobs, along with 300 mine workers (Helms, 2005).

Having had trouble living with the mine, Hopi Tribal Chairman Wayne Taylor, Jr. said that they might face economic ruin without it. "I carry within me a very real fear that our way of life the Hopi Way will soon become a way of the past," he said. "Our culture, one of the oldest in North America, is dying. Our crisis is both immediate and long-term" (Helms, 2005). Taylor said coal royalties paid to the Hopi tribe by Peabody Energy, operators of the mine, generate more than one-third of Hopi tribal government revenue. "Try to imagine, if you will, a municipality, a county or a state losing one-third of its government revenues," Taylor said (Helms, 2005). More than half of Hopi adults are already unemployed. "There is a desperate need for housing. Many of the traditional sandstone homes are crumbling and in disrepair. Forty percent of the houses lack adequate plumbing and kitchen facilities," Taylor said (Helms, 2005). "For the Navajo, the situation may be even worse," he said. "We understand that 13 percent of Navajo government's non-mine labor force would lose their jobs." Additionally, the 300 Navajos who work at Black Mesa would lose their average wages of $60,000 to $70,000, according to Taylor (Helms, 2005).

The closure of the mine and generating station were slated for December 31, 2005. Although the closing was "a certainty," according to Navajo Nation Attorney General Louis Denetsosie, negotiations continued in 2006, and Denetsosie said he still hopes the plant will reopen after being equipped with pollution-control equipment (Edwards, 2005, 1-D).

The Gros Ventres and Assiniboines: Gold Mining and Cyanide Poisoning in Montana

The Little Rocky Mountains of Montana, which long have been regarded as sacred by the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre people, are now laced with the effluent of open-pit gold mines that have produced toxic acid mine drainage. Andrew Schneider of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer described Gus Helgeson, the president of Island Mountain Protectors, a Native American environmental and cultural organization, standing atop Spirit Mountain as he scanned "the gashes, pits and piles of rock that once was his tribe's most sacred land. . . . The strong man weeps" (Schneider, 2001). Spirit Mountain is part of the Little Rockies, an island of mountains in the nearly flat prairie. To Native Americans, the mountains were valued for their deer, bighorn sheep, herbs, natural medicines, and pure water. Gold mining has destroyed all of that.

In 1884, Pike Landusky and Pete Zortman discovered gold on land traditionally held by the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre. The following year, these tribes were moved to the Fort Belknap Reservation, which was named for a U.S. Secretary of War. The Assiniboine and Gros Ventre gave up 40,000 acres of land in exchange for a government promise to feed, clothe, and care for them. At the time, federal Indian agents said nothing about the gold that was buried in Spirit Mountain, but they made it clear the tribes could either agree to their terms or starve. The agreement called for the two tribes to sell portions of their gold-laced land to the federal government for livestock and other goods. Under the terms of the General Mining Law of 1872, however, the government turned around and sold the land to individuals and private companies for $10 an acre.

Over several decades, according to Schneider's account, "scores of shafts were driven into the Little Rockies, and an estimated $1 billion in gold and silver was taken out of the ground—more than $300 million by the last owner of the mine, Pegasus Gold Corp. of Canada" (Schneider, 2001). Underground mining continued until the 1950s, after which open-pit strip-mining was initiated. In 1979, with gold prices rising rapidly, the Pegasus Gold Corp. and a subsidiary, Zortman Mining Inc., built mines that extracted gold from heaps of low-grade ore with cyanide solutions.

The Pegasus Gold Company, which owned several mines in the Little Rocky Mountains of Montana, went bankrupt when gold prices fell sharply after 1980, "leaving the state of Montana with a $100 million cleanup liability and the tribes with the prospect of perpetually polluted water" (Huff, 2000). Cyanide-assisted gold mining continued until 1990, during which time the mine was expanded nine times without any substantial environmental review, despite cyanide spills into the water table used by the Indians (Abel, 1997).

By 1990, the Assiniboines and Gros Ventres began to challenge the environmental side-effects of cyanide-heap gold mining, forming a Native environmental advocacy group, Red Thunder, which joined with non-Indian environmental groups to resist federal permits for the Zortman-Landusky's mine's next requested expansion. The group's appeal was denied. In December 1992, Pegasus applied for another expansion of the mine, as Red Thunder joined with another Native environmental group, Island Mountain Protectors. Both prepared plans to challenge the expansion under the federal Clean Water Act, maintaining that the cyanide-leach method used in the mine was poisoning the reservation's water supply.

During July 1993, an intense thunderstorm brought a flood of acidified mine wastewater into the town of Zortman, after which the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) required the mine's owners to develop a new reclamation plan. At about the same time, an Environmental Protection Agency study found that the mine had been "leaking acids, cyanide, arsenic and lead from each of its seven drainages" (Abel, 1997). The state of Montana soon joined the EPA in a suit based on the Clean Water Act, which was settled out of court in July 1996, with Pegasus and Zortman Mining pledging to pay $4.7 million in fines to the tribes, the federal government, and the state. The mine's owners also pledged to follow a detailed pollution control plan in the future.

Shortly thereafter, a request to triple the mine's size (from 400 to 1,192 acres) was approved by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the BLM (Abel, 1997). In January 1997, The Fort Belknap Community Council, National Wildlife Information Center sued the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, alleging that the agency's decision to allow an expanded mine violated state law.

During September 1997, federal and state environmental agencies fined Pegasus and Zortman Mining $25,300 for violating the clean water settlement by polluting a stream in the Little Rockies the previous summer. John Pearson, director of investor relations for Pegasus, asserted that discharges were the result of "acts of God" during "extraordinarily heavy rains" (Abel, 1997). By late 1997, with gold prices (and Pegasus's share price) declining rapidly, the company warned that its mine would close by January 1, 1998, if the expansion plan was not accepted. The state of Montana and local Native environmental activists wondered whether Pegasus would survive long enough as a corporate entity to complete promised reclamation of existing mines. In January 1998, Pegasus filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

In the meantime, Pegasus left behind open pits that were described by Schneider:

Pegasus dug pits the size of football fields and lined them with plastic or clay. Crushed ore was dumped in mounds as high as 15 feet and soaked with a mist of cyanide. It was the largest cyanide heap–leach operation in the world. . . . The heavily contaminated water trickled and flowed through fissures in the mountain, into the surface streams and underground aquifers that supply drinking water for 1,000 people who live in and around Lodge Pole and Hays, reservation towns north of the mountains (Schneider, 2001).

Streams flowing off the mountain, smelling of rotten eggs (the chemical signature of sulfide), were cloudy and lifeless. "This is death," said John Allen, a tribal spiritual leader, as he filled his hands with putrid muck. "The mines take millions in gold from our land and leave us poisoned water. The miners and the government experts have argued for years about whether the water is bad. All they have to do is look, but they choose not to see" (Schneider, 2001). Allen, who was forty-six years of age in 2001, has thyroid problems, as do three of his siblings. His father has lymphatic cancer. Doctors who specialize in environmental medicine have told the Assiniboines and Gros Ventres that the diseases they suffer stem from contaminated water. Environmental advocates among the two tribes also report a high rate of stillbirths.

Bruce E. Johansen

Further Reading
Abel, Heather. 1997. "The Rise and Fall of a Gold Mining Company." High Country News 29, December 22: 24. Available at: hcn.Article?article_id=3860. Accessed January 2, 2007.; Arizona Water Resource. 2001. "Black Mesa Spill Nets $128,000 Fine." News Briefs 9, no. 6 (May/June). Available at: AZWATER/awr/mayjune01/news.html. Accessed January 2, 2007.; Black Mesa Indigenous Support. No date-a. "A Brief History of relocation on Black Mesa." Available at: Accessed January 7, 2007.; Black Mesa Indigenous Support. No date-b. "Clean Coal's Dirty Facts." Available at: Accessed January 7, 2007.; Edwards, John G. 2005. "Mohave Plant's Closure Coming." Las Vegas Review-Journal (December 24): 1-D.; Four Corners Clamor. 1998. "Figure This One!" VI, no. 1: 6. Available at: redman/clamor6.htm#newdeal. Accessed January 2, 2007.; Giuliano, Jackie Alan. 2001. "Killing Tomorrow for a Few Megawatts Today." Environment News Service (March). Available at:] Accessed March 31, 2001./ens/mar2001/2001L-03–30g.html.; Helms, Kathy. 2005. "Hopis Face Uncertain Future; Chairman Taylor Laments Lack of Water, Jobs and Mine Closures." Gallup Independent, February 4. Available at: 2005/feb/020405hopis.html. Accessed January 2, 2007.; Huff, Andrew. 2000. "Gold Mining Threatens Communities." The Progressive Media Project, July 11. Available at: Accessed July 31, 2000.; Johansen, Bruce, and Roberto Maestas. 1979. Wasi'chu: The Continuing Indian Wars. New York: Monthly Review Press.; LaDuke, Winona. 1992. "Indigenous Environmental Perspectives: A North American Primer." Native Americas 9, no. 2 (Summer): 52–71.; Norrell, Brenda. 2001. "Hopi and Navajo Protest Pipeline." Asheville [North Carolina] Global Report 129 (July 5–11). Available at: issues/129/nationalnews.html. Accessed January 2, 2007.; Schneider, Andrew. 2001. " 'A Wounded Mountain Spewing Poison:' Seattle Post-Intelligencer Special Report, June 12. Available at: Accessed January 2, 2007.; Schneider, Iyawata Britten. No date. "Environmental and Human Rights Devastation in the Southwest." Country Road News. Available at: CountryRoadNews/]; Vandevelder, Paul. 2000. "Between a Rock and a Dry Place." Native Americas 17, no. 2 (Summer): 10–15.; Wanamaker, Tom. 2002. "Hopi Tribe Opposes Lease Extension on Water-Thirsty Black Mesa Mine." Indian Country Today, February 13: C-1.

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