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Coal mining has ended on Black Mesa. What happens now?

Cliffrose.JPG
Melissa Sevigny
/
KNAU
Cliffrose is one of the plants being restored to the Kayenta Mine Complex; it's used in Navajo medicine and ceremony.

The Kayenta Mine Complex on tribal lands in northeastern Arizona once supplied the coal that lit up homes in Los Angeles and pumped water to Phoenix. The mine closed in 2019, and now Navajo and Hopi people want the land returned so they can use it to graze livestock and gather culturally important plants. Mine reclamation is well underway, but the process is slow, and some worry it’s taking too long. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports.

Houses and hogans fringe the shuttered Kayenta Mine Complex, and dirt roads cut through it, marked by signs for school bus stops, as well as warnings about explosives and heavy machinery. Eric Bronston gives a tour of the place where he worked for forty years. “Back in ’79 the pit was still on that side when I came,” he says, pointing out the open window of his truck.

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Melissa Sevigny
/
KNAU
Public roads cut through the Kayenta Mine Complex, where signs still warn about explosives and heavy machinery. Mining ended in 2019.

The open pits are gone from this part of the mine; it’s mostly covered in grass now, but a few hillsides are scattered with cliffrose, rabbitbrush, and sage—plants used by Navajos in medicine and ceremony. Bronston parks his truck near a four-foot-high juniper tree.

“This guy, it’s doing really good, it’s hard to reestablish this juniper,” he says.

Bronston was part of the crew that replanted the strip-mined landscape.I’m proud to be part of it, because it’s going to be a forest pretty soon here,” he says.

Peabody Energy began to mine on Black Mesa in the 1970s, before environmental regulations required much oversight. That changed in 1977 with the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Vern Pfannensteil was a reclamation manager for Peabody at the time. “The move toward predominately native species is required in the regulations, and it’s a good thing, because the native plant communities… are more assured of sustainability,” he explains.

He says the law also requires the company to monitor the replanted land for 10 years, “and it takes incredible application of best practices, timing and moisture—God willing, we pray for rain just like a farmer does.”

Just over 80 percent of the Kayenta Mine footprint has been replanted. Reclamation happened concurrent with the mining, so the area is a patchwork of places restored before and after the new rules kicked in. Bronston and Pfannensteil say they have faith the process will, in time, make the land available again for livestock grazing and plant collecting.

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Melissa Sevigny
/
KNAU
The darker square of vegetation is a Cultural Plant Area, where juniper, pinon, cliffrose, rabbitbrush, sage, and other culturally significant have been restored. Cultural plant areas like this make up 5 percent of the land reclaimed on Kayenta since updated practices were adopted in 1990. The rest of the complex is seeded with native and nonnative grasses meant to provide livestock grazing. A telephone pole in the distance has been left as a perch for raptors.

But local activists point out parts of the mine that shut down 17 years ago still haven’t been replanted, and argue the reclamation rules adopted in 1990 are now decades out of date.

Nicole Horseherder directs the nonprofit group Tó Nizhóní Ání. “We’re in a time when all this is unknown. We don’t know what our lives are going to be like after the lands are returned to us for use,” she says. She wants a new public comment process now that the mine has closed.

“I’m not a plant expert, I’m not a reclamation expert,” Horseherder says. “However, I am a person from Black Mesa. I do herd sheep. I do farm. I do go out and harvest wild tobaccos, wild herbs.”

Public meetings were supposed to happen when Peabody Energy applied for a permit renewal in 2020. That’s a routine process and isn’t expected to result in major changes to the reclamation plan, according to Mychal Yellowman, tribal liaison for the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. He says the process is on hold because of the pandemic.

“I think had COVID not happened, there would have been more opportunities to meet with the locals out there, which I do regret,” Yellowman says.

Locals like Marie Gladue. She’s angry that Kayenta coal helped faraway cities prosper… and left people in her own community, she says, feeling hopeless about protecting their rights and access to their land. “Where the mining happened, my father came directly from that land…. I just think that that isn’t right, the way that all that happened,” she says.

Gladue fears healing for her people is not forthcoming.

“If you make the land suffer, the people are going to suffer,” she says.

As reclamation continues in the wake of the mine’s closure, residents who want to graze animals or gather plants there still need permission from Peabody Energy, which declined to give an interview for this story. The last open pits are scheduled to be regraded by 2026, which puts the final release of the lands to the Navajo and Hopi nations sometime in the late 2030s.

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Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.