A ‘colossal’ waste
Report: Peabody’s use of N-aquifer water threatens its existence
By Kathy Helms
Diné Bureau 03/23/06
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
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
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
“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
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
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
On the Web: http://www.nrdc.org