Coal mining on Navajo land draws lawsuitPublished by MAC on 2007-07-14
Coal mining on Navajo land draws lawsuit
By Dale Rodebaugh and Joe Hanel, Durango Herald Staff Writers, http://durangoherald.com/asp-bin/article_generation.asp?article_type=news&article_path=/news/07/news070714_4.htm
14th July 2007
Three environmental groups challenged a government agency Friday over its decision to renew a permit for the coal mine that would supply the proposed Desert Rock power plant in New Mexico. The plaintiffs claim the mine has forced Navajo Indians from tribal lands and left millions of tons of hazardous waste exposed to the elements.
A lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Denver by Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, the San Juan Citizens Alliance and the Energy Mineral Law Center against the federal Office of Surface Mining. The plaintiffs allege that two permits issued recently by the agency allow BHP Billiton to continue practices injurious to people and the environment.
BHP's Navajo Mine involves surface mining on 13,000 acres of Navajo land south of Shiprock. The mine produces coal for the Four Corners Power Plant.
The Navajo Nation and Sithe Global plan to build the 1,500-megawatt Desert Rock power plant near the mouth of the BHP mine. The same environmental groups that filed Friday's lawsuit are trying to stop the Desert Rock plant, saying the region's dirty air can't handle another coal power plant.
Brad Bartlett, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, said it isn't directly related to the campaign against Desert Rock, although it could affect plans for the plant.
"This is not really the issue for our lawsuit. Our lawsuit goes to waste disposal practices," Bartlett said. Desert Rock spokesman Frank Maisano said he hadn't seen Friday's lawsuit and couldn't comment on its specifics, but he lashed out at Desert Rock critics.
"Clearly, these opponents have shown every interest in trying to delay (Desert Rock). They're using all kinds of tactics," Maisano said. "But that's not the sentiment of the Navajo Nation."
Mike Eisenfeld with the San Juan Citizens Alliance said that coal mined from area is returned as waste - in the form of ash and sludge - to the Navajo Mine. "More than 1.5 million tons of coal-combustion waste from the plant per year is backfilled into the Navajo Mine," Eisenfeld said. "Despite legal requirements, the Office of Surface Mining hasn't required protections for ground or surface water. It doesn't even require monitoring, even though the mine is part of a major river drainage."
The river in question, the Chaco River, flows northward, emptying into the San Juan River. "OSM is creating a massive Superfund legacy for the residents of the Four Corners," Eisenfeld said. "This is an irresponsible dumping practice that has to stop now."
Trucks that haul waste from the plant to the mine lose part of their load in the form of dust stirred by high winds, Eisenfeld said.
Lori Goodman with Dine CARE said that the Navajo Nation tribal government and BHP have removed members of the Navajo Nation from land they have inhabited for generations. The Navajo use the land for ceremonial purposes, graze livestock and bury family members there, she said.
"Tribal members, young and old, have been removed," Goodman said. "There will be more."
Tribal lands aren't uninhabited, which apparently is what the federal agency and BHP think, Goodman said.
"OSM fails to understand that this is our homeland," Goodman said.
Representatives of the three organizations challenging the extension of allegedly injurious mining practices on Navajo Nation land will be at the Open Shutter Gallery in Durango from 5 to 7 pm today to answer questions about their lawsuit, which was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Denver.
Works of documentary photographer Carlan Tapp, who has interviewed and photographed Navajos directly affected by coal-powered development in the San Juan Basin, will be on exhibit.