Jim Maniaci, Diné Bureau
(December 2001)


BLACK MESA-- Peabody Coal is confident a new water source can be found and keep before 2005 and the Black Mesa Mine can can be kept open.

The mine, owned by a Peabody Energy subsidiary, converts all its coal into a powder-water mixture (slurry) that is pumped 273 miles to Southern California Edison's Mohave Generating Station at Laughlin, Nev.

For about three decades Peabody has pumped the necessary water from eight deep wells that also serve nearby residents. But the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the utility and the mine want to find another source since the wells tap the abundant high-quality N Aquifer.

The problem is that Edison must have the new source by Dec. 31, 2005. Without the water, the ground-up coal can not be pumped to Laughlin, so the 1,570 mega-watt power plant would have to shut down.

The financially troubled California utility noted the problem in a notice published Nov. 9.

And the fear of losing several hundred high-paying jobs caused the United Mine Workers of America Local 1620 and the reservation union council, the Nal Nishii Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, to raise its concerns with the tribal Government Services Committee on Tuesday.

The miners average pay is about $45,000 a year, or eight times the reservation average, according to Beth Sutton, Peabody's spokeswoman.

"We are confident that a solution can be found because operating Black Mesa is in the best interest of both tribes and the people who need the electricity," Sutton said Wednesday.

Another problem is the Navajo Nation's $600 million lawsuit against the U.S. Interior Department for a 1987 decision by then Secretary Don Hodel to revise the royalty rate. The tribe wanted 20 percent instead of the standard federal 12.5 percent rate he approved after, the tribe charged, third parties secretly interfered.

If the Navajo Nation drops the breach of trust suit, the Interior Department is willing to operate a new major waterline from Lake Powell to Black Mesa, with Edison paying for it, according to the labor council's president, Lawrence Oliver.

He said Edison then would be investing at least $800 million, and possibly up to $1.3 billion, in the new water line, rebuilding the worn out slurry line to Laughlin, and adding air pollution control equipment to improve the emissions from Mohave's big chimneys. The air pollution portion will cost an estimated $560 million, according to Edison's notice to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. It will consist of scrubbers, a bag house and burners.

Sutton said Peabody's leases with the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe provide for a grand total of 670 million tons of coal to be removed and more than half already has been dug up. What is left is sufficient, she said, to supply both Mohave and the Navajo Generating Station east of Page for the expected life spans of the two plants. The Arizona station gets its coal from Black Mesa's neighbor, the Kayenta Mine, and it is shipped by electric railroad to the Le Chee Chapter plant on the southern edge of Lake Powell.

The Black Mesa lease expires in 2005, but can be extended to 2020, while the Kayenta lease will expire in 2011, but also can be extended to 2026, Sutton said.

Peabody employs 265 people at Black Mesa, Sutton said. According to Oliver, about 200 of them belong to Local 1620. Another local covers the 15 or so employees of the Black Mesa Pipeline Company, he added. About 300 of the Kayenta Mine's workers belong to UMWA Local 1924, Oliver said.

Information Oliver provided to the Government Services Committee included historical and projected schedules for Edison to fulfill a consent decree's terms. Last year the Hopi Tribe agreed to provide $50 million towards the new water line from the lake, the schedule said.

To keep from falling behind, Edison must file its plans with the California Public Utilities Commission by the end of January.

Oliver's schedule shows the consent decree requiring a firm contract to design the air pollution control facilities by March 1, 2003 and within six months after that a contract to buy the equipment. Construction must start by April 1, 2004. The first of the two 785 mega-watt units must be finished by July 1, 2005, followed six months later by the second 785 mega-watt unit.

Reprinted under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law