A Hopi discussion on coal mining, water rights, and the environment

[The following letter was written by former Hopi Tribe chairman Benjamin H. Nuvamsa from Shungopavi.  He presented the letter to the Hopi Tribal Council on Friday January 13, 2012]

January 13, 2012
Hopi Tribal Council
Hopi – Tewa Senom

It is time we have a serious discussion about coal mining on our reservation, our water rights and our environment.  For far too long, we have pushed these issues aside, not willing to talk about how these issues impact our lives.  We must talk about how the Peabody Western Coal Company and Navajo Generating Station are affecting our lives.  Since the mid 1960’s, Peabody Coal has been mining our coal, pumping our precious Navajo Aquifer water and paying us pennies on the dollar in return.  Navajo Generating Station is emitting dangerous and harmful particulates into the air we breathe.  Our coal resources are being depleted.  Our Navajo Aquifer has been damaged and is decreasing.  Our drinking water supply is contaminated; and our sacred springs are drying up.  And, our people are suffering health problems from the mining activity and production of electricity.  But who is really benefiting from this mining?

Most people know about how Attorney John Boyden, with the help of the Interior Department, managed to negotiate coal leases designed to benefit the coal mining industry and the utility companies.  They literally stole our coal and water right from under us; and we allowed it to happen.  We were sold a bill of goods by Boyden.  Sadly, we are still allowing this to continue as evidenced by the latest Hopi tribal council’s action to approve the Peabody Lease Reopener.

Our elected leaders are being told by Peabody Coal, Office of Surface Mining, and by the Salt River Project (and other owners of the Navajo Generating Station) that if they did not approve the lease reopeners, that our tribal economy would suffer.  I do not believe this story.  It was the Federal government, in the first place, that determined what our economy would be; who would mine our coal and use our water; and literally what price we would be paid.  The Federal government created a monopoly for Peabody Coal.  Although it is our water and our coal, we were not allowed to make these decisions.  We could not exercise our inherent sovereign right to determine our own economic future.  Those decisions were taken away from us when the Federal government pushed the coal leases with Sentry Royalty (Peabody’s predecessor).  We did not have control over our resources and our economy.  We still don’t.  The Federal government designed these leases so that we would become dependent on coal royalties.

So what happens with the money we get from Peabody Coal?  We get a mere $11.0 to $13.0 million each year from Peabody Coal in the form of coal royalties and some bonuses.  This money is put into an investment account at the Department of Interior’s Office of Trust Funds Management in Albuquerque, but most of it is given to the Hopi Water and Energy Team for their travel and other expenses.  Most of this money is used by attorneys and other specialists to produce biased reports that our resources are safe and have not been damaged.  Hopi and Tewa Senom have no say in how this money is used.  Very little, if any of this money is used to create jobs and help villages.

So, as owners of the resources, we have to ask hard questions, such as:  Do we really need coal mining on our reservation?  Is it worth the loss of our resources? Is it worth damaging our resources and environment?  Is it worth the health and welfare of our people?  Again, we must ask:  Who is really benefiting from coal mining on our reservation?  Peabody Coal is a global company.  The ten-year coal leases give Peabody Coal full subsurface rights to our coal, water and other minerals (except oil and gas).  The leases give Peabody Coal full rights to the millions/billions of tons of our coal for which they do not pay us anything until they mine the coal.  Because of how the leases are structured, we cannot market our coal to other companies to get better prices and have a say on how our coal is mined.

Peabody Coal reported that in October 2011, its net income rose to $274.1 million, or a rise of 22.3% from last year.  Its revenues rose 9.2% to $2.04 billion from last year.  The Navajo Generating Station buys the coal from Peabody Coal to produce electricity.  The power plant is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation (24.3%) Salt River Project (21.7%), Los Angeles Water & Power (21.2%), Arizona Public Service (14.0%), Nevada Power (11.3%), and Tucson Gas & Electric (7.5%).  Salt River Project recently reported a profit of over 26.0% in 2011.  Peabody Coal, in its 2005 report, said it paid the State of Arizona about $67.5 million during the period 1986 to 2004; and paid the Navajo Nation over $82.9 million in various forms of taxes during the same period.  Hopi did not and does not receive any tax revenues because of a reported covenant to not tax Peabody.  So, who is benefiting from coal mining?

So what should do?  Should we continue coal mining, or should we enter into alternative forms of energy production, or should we just stop coal mining?  In any event, we must exercise our sovereign right to decide for ourselves, and decide our own economic future; and no longer allow the Federal government, owners of the Navajo Generating Station, and Peabody Coal to dictate our economy to us.

The Hopi Tribe (and the Navajo Nation) holds the key to the economy of the entire Southwest.  It is our coal and water that makes it possible for Arizona, southern Nevada and southern California to have electric power.  And, while others profit handsomely from our diminishing resources, our tribal socioeconomic conditions remain dismal.  We get no direct benefit from coal mining revenues, we have limited or no jobs, our homes are in disrepair; and many of us do not have electricity and running water in our homes.  After almost 50 years, we have nothing to show how coal mining on our reservation has improved our lives.

Our economic future starts with a serious round of discussions; adoption of sound energy and water policies; and renegotiating the Peabody Coal leases to demand higher prices and accountably for the damage they have done to our resources.  It also starts with the tribe imposing taxes on Peabody Coal.  It starts with requiring the Navajo Generating Station to comply with strict Federal emissions control regulations.  And, it starts with holding our trustee, the Federal government, to carry out its trust obligations to us.

Benjamin H. Nuvamsa
Former Hopi Tribal Chairman

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4 Responses to “A Hopi discussion on coal mining, water rights, and the environment”


  1. 1 Phil K January 14, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Former Hopi Tribal Chairman, BH Nuvamsa stated it clearly “The Hopi Tribe (and the Navajo Nation) holds the key to the economy of the entire Southwest.”

    In that picture also should be the Department of Interior and State Congressional delegations in the Southwest. However a key to any improved kinetic political consequences would be not only the above groups making clear their current and hoped for goals and objectives, it also would be bringing the widest possible media and personal understandings of these issues beyond the Southwest region. We need a Hopi and Navajo Spring known throughout the planet.

  2. 3 feminineocean January 15, 2012 at 2:25 am

    As a nurse working in the Hopi nation I am glad to see members of the nation addressing this issue. Asthma and other lung diseases are a large health problem in the nation and are directly related to the conditions of pollution and lack of access to good heating.

  3. 4 Old Jules January 30, 2012 at 7:11 am

    Reblogged this on So Far From Heaven and commented:
    Seems the advantages of being out of sight and out of mind for most of the population aren’t necessarily advantages when the out-of-sight geography includes something a multi-national corporation wants. All those city folks needing to keep the air conditioners turned down to 70 and to be able to light up the hair dryers every morning probably never ask themselves where the electricity popped out of the ground and hopped into the wires they plug things into.

    One more bug on the windshield of civilization.


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© Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert and BEYOND THE MESAS, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert and BEYOND THE MESAS with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert is enrolled with the Hopi Tribe from the village of Upper Moencopi in northeastern Arizona. He is an associate professor of American Indian Studies & History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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