MAC: Mines and Communities

US Update

Published by MAC on 2006-03-23

US Update

23rd March 2006

A 'colossal' waste

Report: Peabody's use of N-aquifer water threatens its existence

by Kathy Helms, Diné Bureau

23rd March 2006

WINDOW ROCK - While the Navajo Mediation Team works to keep Mohave Generating Station open and Peabody Western Coal Co. slurrying coal to Nevada, the Natural Resources Defense Council says the Navajo Aquifer is in decline and industrial pumping already has done damage.

NRDC is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment, with 1.2 million members nationwide.

The organization released an updated report last week, entitled "Drawdown: An Update on Groundwater Mining on Black Mesa."

NRDC said a bid by coal mining giant Peabody Energy to increase its water use by 50 percent at Black Mesa mine threatens the main source of drinking water for many Navajo and Hopi people. NRDC said new data contradict the government's claims that Peabody's groundwater pumping is within legal limits established to protect Navajo and Hopi water supplies.

"Peabody's recent petition for 'life of mine' access to Navajo Aquifer water should be denied, because the aquifer already has suffered 'material damage,' a scientific threshold established under federal law," NRDC said.

Peabody has been mining coal on the Navajo and Hopi reservations since the 1960s, following exploration agreements with the Native American Indian Nations.

Because of concern at the time about possible damage to the aquifer caused by massive water pumping around 3 million gallons a day, on average then-Interior Secretary Stewart Udall included an escape clause to the agreement.

"Yet despite numerous studies and now-obvious signs of negative impacts, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, an agency within the Department of the Interior, maintains that there has been no material damage, and it has failed to invoke the escape clause," NRDC said.

DOI has claimed that available information shows there is no evidence the aquifer has suffered "material damage." NRDC disputes that, citing the government's own field data.

In NRDC's 2000 report, "Drawdown: Groundwater Mining on Black Mesa," the organization reported that six of 15 monitored wells had dipped below a critical 100-foot threshold, established to protect the aquifer from internal collapse and contamination.

The update has found that water levels at most of the wells have continued to decline, including two monitoring wells that have periodically dipped below the top of the aquifer itself.

NRDC said water flow from springs that provide drinking water and also have great cultural and religious significance to the Hopi, are producing significantly less water after years of massive withdrawals. Evidence of accelerating contamination of the N-Aquifer also is evident in some locations, a finding that hydrologists believe is associated with changes in pressure in the N-Aquifer due to years of industrial pumping.

One of a kind

"Government bureaucrats are ignoring clear violations of their own rules to protect the aquifer," said Timothy Grabiel, principal author of the NRDC report.

"They have let Peabody pump billions of gallons of pure drinking water to sustain its antiquated industrial coal slurry operation," Grabiel said.

Today, when around 60 percent of American coal is transported by railroad, with barges and trucks picking up most of the rest, the pipeline at Black Mesa stands as perhaps the only one of its kind left in the United States, according to the report.

The decline of this technology is attributed in part to the amount of water required, NRDC said.

In the late 1970s, the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment and several private researchers identified water scarcity as the principal obstacle to slurry pipelines and recommended their use only in areas with abundant water resources, the report states.

"To slurry its coal, Peabody must use immense quantities of water, and because historically it has failed to clean its coal of debris before liquefying it a choice that results in a heavier solid it has been obliged to use even more than is strictly necessary," NRDC said.

"With the pipeline taking up to 43,000 tons of slurried coal per day, the company pumps as much as 120,000 gallons of water per hour. That amounts to an average of 4,000 acre-feet of pristine drinking water each year, almost 70 percent more than the 2,400 acre-feet Peabody Western anticipated using when pumping began," the report states.

An acre-foot amounts to enough water to fill a football field a foot deep. Four thousand acre-feet adds up to more than 1.3 billion gallons of water, "an amount the annual water needs of the entire Hopi Reservation will not approach for three decades," NRDC said.

Permit for more H2O

The Office of Surface Mining in Denver is now processing Peabody's application for a "life of mine" permit. Peabody has asked to increase its water usage to more than 6,000 acre-feet per year, about 50 percent more than its historical use. The increase would extend over the next 20 years.

OSMRE is expected to release its draft Environmental Impact Statement for Peabody's application next month.

"The use of over 1 billion gallons of precious, clean water in one of our nation's most arid regions to slurry coal is a colossal waste," said David Beckman, co-author of the 2000 Drawdown report and project director of the updated report.

Until late 2005, Peabody withdrew more than a billion gallons of drinking water per year to produce coal slurry and transport it through 273 miles of pipeline to Mohave Generating Station. The Black Mesa pipeline failed 12 times between 1994 and 1999, with at least eight of those resulting in discharges of coal or coal slurry into local washes.

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data contained in the report, the largest known failures occurred April 1, 1996, when approximately 450 tons of coal spilled; another failure the following day discharged 1,200 tons, and on April 4, 1996, an additional 500 tons of coal were discharged.

Despite the Mohave shut-down, Peabody is seeking to extend its permit to operate the mine in anticipation of the power plant coming back online. Peabody's mine permit application assumes indefinite access to Navajo water, according to the report.

NRDC recommends immediate action to conserve the N-aquifer water supply as well as long-term solutions to reduce reliance on it. The group also recommends OSMRE deny Peabody's request to increase N-Aquifer pumping; improve the N-Aquifer's monitoring program; and work with the tribes to manage resources.

With tribal consent, the N-Aquifer should be designated as a "sole source aquifer" by U.S. EPA, an action that would strengthen its protection, NRDC said.

Vernon Masayesva, former chairman of the Hopi Tribe and now executive director of Black Mesa Trust, said, "The Black Mesa aquifer has been a source of pure drinking water for Native Americans for over a thousand years. Peabody's continued drawdown of this vital resource is an insult to our cultural and religious heritage."

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