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Earth Notes

The End of an Era?


By Daniel Kraker

Laughlin, NV – SFX: sneak up ambi of hilltop under track, wind blowing, etc.

Bob Teasdale stands atop a sandy hill in Laughlin. In front of him towers Mohave Generating Station's giant smokestack. Behind him, just beyond the town's tacky casino strip, the Colorado River shimmers a sparkling blue against the stark desert landscape. But Teasdale says before the power plant shut down, the view wouldn't have been worth the climb.

AX: When we don't have wind here and the plant's running, you can't even see the mountains on either side of this valley, it's so hazy and smoggy in here you can't hardly breathe, it's just like being in LA, when you land at LAX.

Today, though, the rugged mountains that frame the valley are vivid against the clear winter sky. It's what the retired ironworker has been fighting for since he moved here full-time four years ago.

AX: I'm just a little voice, standing here doing my little job of telling my side of the story. I'm not looking to be an Erin Brockovich or anything. But as we stand we can look down north, south, east and west, and you can see as far as your eyes can see, it's just a beautiful clear day today, because this plant has been shut down.

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It shut down because Southern California Edison, Mohave's majority owner, was supposed to install pollution controls by the end of last year, but never did. The utility was leery of making the multi-million dollar investment because it wasn't convinced it was going to have a steady supply of coal to fuel the plant.

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And that takes us to the source of the coal ... and the center of the controversy, a mine hundreds of miles away on Black Mesa, on Hopi and Navajo land.

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This was the scene at the mine three years ago, when the power plant was operating. Coal rode huge conveyors into a plain industrial building. But it didn't go onto trains or trucks. Instead the coal was crushed and mixed with water pumped out of the ground to form a black, soupy slurry.

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That slurry flowed down an 18 inch pipeline, 273 miles across the desert to the Mohave power plant. It's the only coal slurry pipeline in the country.

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Paul Pertruit is Black Mesa Pipeline's operations manager.

AX: Our pipeline crosses many mountain ranges. It goes from elevation 6500 feet, clear down to 750. This is one of the main reasons slurry pipeline was chosen as the transport method because rail cost would be prohibitive and distance in tonnage makes trucking prohibitive.

What the pipeline costs is water, an enormous amount of it in a place where water shortages are a way of life. And it's not just the quantity of water.

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Here on the southern edge of Black Mesa, it gushes from sandstone cliffs... crystal clear and pure enough to drink.

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AX: That's the quality of water Peabody used for 35 years just to transport coal through a slurry. It's just unbelievable that this quality of water was used in such a manner.

Leonard Selestewa is president of Black Mesa Trust, a Hopi grassroots group that opposes the coal slurry. He stands next to a pipe jutting out from beneath an enormous cottonwood tree in his village of Moenkopi. Prayer feathers are tied to shrubs surrounding it.

AX: Our village really respects this particular spring. This is where we send the kachina spirits back home. So this water's been with us for a long time, but again I've seen photos where it was just a sheet of water coming out of this spring

Selestewa says this spring now provides only a fifth of the water it used to. He and many other Hopis blame the slurry line, which every year for 35 years pumped 1.3 billion gallons of groundwater; that's enough to cover a football field three quarters a mile deep.

AX: Village springs are essential to our culture, to our religious ways. Without them, we wouldn't know how to go about what we've done here for over a thousand years. This is why we forced the issue with Peabody, I mean, no more. You can't use our water like this anymore.

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But the Hopis' relationship with the coalmine is complicated. The tribe agreed to lease its coal and its water in the late 60s. In exchange the tribe has reaped millions of dollars in royalties, which have funded hundreds of tribal jobs, senior programs and college scholarships. Selestewa, though, says he hasn't seen a penny of those royalties. Like many Hopis and Navajos, he doesn't have electricity, and heats his home with coal he gets free from the mine.

The mine's closure, though, is devastating for its 200 employees, most of whom were laid off. Marie Justice is Navajo and president of the mine workers union local on Black Mesa.

AX: Some of those people that have lost their jobs have been there they're entire lives, they've never gone anywhere else, they've been there like 35 years, I feel bad because they're going to have to leave, and they've never left their home, they have to go elsewhere and find jobs

Justice was a truck driver at the mine for 17 years. She was laid off in December. Jobs like hers paid as much as 70 thousand dollars seven times the average income on the Hopi and Navajo reservations. Peabody Energy spokeswoman Beth Sutton says the mine injected 90 million dollars a year into the regional economy.

AX: The sadness of closure is that it serves no one, the tribes, our employees, or the electricity customers, who are facing ever increasing energy bills.

Sutton says several studies have shown that Peabody's pumping has barely affected the huge underground aquifer; it's the equivalent, she says, of taking a soda can from a 55 gallon drum. But after both tribal governments passed resolutions opposing the water use, Sutton says Peabody agreed to find a different way to transport the coal.

AX: We respect concerns that have been raised by the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe, and because we value that partnership and because we're in this for the long term, we've worked hard to find solutions that the tribes support.

The solution that Edison, Peabody and the tribes have agreed on isn't a conventional one, like a rail line. That option's been dismissed as too expensive. Rather, they want to pump water from the Coconino aquifer, south of the reservations. A draft environmental impact statement on that proposal is due out next month. If it's approved that could mean the reopening of Mohave, but likely not for several years.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker