Coal Industry Under Scrutiny on Tribal Land

Environmentalists have filed an appeal challenging Peabody Coal’s mining permit in northern Arizona.

At the same time, a new economic impact study shows Arizona, as well as the Navajo and Hopi Tribes, stand to lose millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs in the future unless agreements can be reached to keep the Navajo Generating Station and Peabody Coal operating.

New federal regulations could shut the plant down.

The L. William Seidman Research Institute at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University conducted the economic impact study for the Navajo Nation and the Salt River Project, the utility that owns the Navajo Generating Station. The power plant supplies electricity for parts of Arizona, California and Nevada.

Environmentalists don’t deny the economic impact, but they would like to see renewable energy replace coal. Jihan Gearon heads up Black Mesa Water Coalition.

"We don’t have to continue being stuck in this one trick pony economy that the Navajo Nation has that’s focused almost solely on mineral and resource extraction," Gearon said.

Gearon and other environmentalists have long fought the coal industry saying it’s a major polluter. Gearon’s latest complaint isn’t about pollution, but the amount of water it pumps.

Beth Sutton is a spokeswoman for Peabody Energy. She said Peabody’s analysis shows the Navajo Aquifer is robust.

"What these studies show is that mining will use less than 1/10 of 1 percent of the volume of water that’s stored in the aquifer," Sutton said.

Scientist Daniel Higgins looked at the hydro geology surrounding the mine in a separate study. He says the water level has made the aquifer vulnerable to it caving in on itself.

"It appears that material damage caused by the mine has occurred," Higgins said.

Higgins said Peabody is including more than one aquifer in its numbers. He said the federal government relies on Peabody’s ground water model and the government should instead get an independent third party to monitor the water supply.