Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

January 17, 2013

Navajo Robyn Jackson 'Coal Mine Produces Poison, Not Sovereignty'

Ash ponds close to Chaco Wash

Coal Mine Produces Poison, Not Sovereignty
By Robyn Jackson
Censored News

While considering the proposed transfer of ownership of BHP’s Navajo Mine, we should start by asking ourselves why BHP is offering to sell at this time. If we were to thoroughly examine, we would see that coal mines all over the country are being phased out. In 2012, Alpha Natural Resources closed 8 mines. Coal is in fact, in decline. California and other state and city governments are working towards transitioning to renewable energy sources.
Considering all this, you might think that BHP’s executives are trying to relieve themselves of a no longer profitable mine, which also involves numerous egregious liabilities that will certainly lead to billions of dollars in remediation and reclamation. For instance, there is the matter of coal ash. After power plants have burned coal, they are left with the ash that is often disposed of in dry landfills or mixed with water and contained in holding ponds. Some might say, “Isn’t this just harmless ash?”  The truth is, coal ash often contains seventeen toxins, if not more, including heavy metals and radioactive elements like radon, thorium and uranium. A report by the Physicians for Social Responsibility has found that ingesting these toxicants, whether through eating, drinking or inhaling, can cause cancer and affect the nervous system creating cognitive deficits, developmental delays and behavioral problems. Data by the EPA has also found that living next to a coal ash disposal site can increase your risk of cancer and other diseases.
So what does Four Corners Power Plant (FCPP) do with their coal ash? We know that from 1971 to 2008, generated coal ash was dumped in unlined mine pits, covered only by topsoil at Navajo Mine. Yes, for nearly 40 years BHP was accepting toxic waste as backfill. In 2008, BHP stopped accepting coal ash and FCPP now has holding ponds, west of the facility to store the ash. Given the height and width of these ponds, the term pond seems inadequate. As of 2009, one of these embankments had a height of 170 feet. That’s the same height as a 17 story building and this is just one part of the holding site for wet coal ash. An operation of 50 years of burning coal should amount to a great deal of waste. In fact, FCPP has generated over 100 million tons of coal ash and most of it is on the Navajo Mine site. 
As mentioned, the coal ash dumped at Navajo Mine is unlined. This makes the toxins in the ash much more susceptible to leaching into above and underground waterways, rivers, aquifers and drinking wells. Additionally, these toxins can travel in the environment from erosion and runoff and as fine particles or dust. There are examples of communities who have been adversely affected by coal ash and its contamination of their water supply.  Coal ash disposal sites have been quarantined as no longer safe for people due to high levels of toxins. The most famous incident of a coal ash catastrophe was the 2008 TVA Kingston, Tennessee, coal ash spill. A holding pond containing 40 acres of coal ash failed, spilling into a river valley that included homes. Now that area has two contaminated rivers and homes that residents were forced to sell to the Tennessee Valley Authority, who owned the plant. As of 2011, the TVA has estimated the total cost of cleanup at Kingston to be 1.2 billion dollars. Interestingly, the TVA is largely able to make this payment through higher electric bills to their ratepayers. Such a great example of how responsible these companies are.
Then again, as Pat Risner, President of BHP NM Coal stated in a December 2012 letter to the Durango Herald, “There are different views on what corporate responsibility entails.”  Exactly what BHP considers their responsibility needs to be clarified. Currently a reclamation or remediation plan for CCW by BHP is nonexistent. Which means, who exactly is liable for paying for clean-up? What if the unlined coal ash on Navajo Mine site leached out? Is BHP thinking that the Navajo Nation should clean that up itself? After 50 years of Navajos providing cheap electricity for others and allowing BHP to make huge profits, is that really all they can say to us? Think about it. In 2011, they made a profit of 15 billion on total revenues of 70 billion. They are, after all, the biggest mining company in the world.
The Navajo government can ill afford to take on clean-up costs that amount to over a billion dollars.  As it is, a 2010 report has found levels of boron and selenium downstream from the FCPP coal ash ponds are higher than upstream levels. These downstream levels are two times over what is safe for aquatic life. There is more evidence that coal ash has saturated the ground in Area I of Navajo Mine, parallel to the San Juan River. Another study determined that coal ash constituents, including selenium are making their way into the San Juan River ecosystem. The evidence is undeniable and frightening.
Of course, BHP wants nothing more than to leave behind this mess. Have we forgotten that BHP is a business, with the sole purpose of making a profit? But for our communities and our nation, this is more than just some area to make money off of. We have a relationship and long history to this place. This is our home. This is our land, our air and our water.
As our stories explain, we were put here by the Holy People. We were told that this would be our home to take care of. Most are aware that we have sacred mountains that designate our boundaries, but the major rivers that surround our territory are also sacred and act as boundaries: like the San Juan, which represents the male water that is said to protect and look after our people. In the traditional Navajo view, rivers serve as energy sources which our ceremonies, prayers and chants are tied to. Included in these ceremonies, prayers and chants are the many plants and animals that make up the southwest landscape and the Navajo universe. We are taught that the well-being of all these creatures and the ecosystems that support them, including our mother (earth) and father (sky), is linked to our overall well-being and spiritual health as Diné.
Exactly how does 50 years of water, air, and soil contamination fit into our traditional view? Is it really okay that coal mining and coal combustion has disrupted so many lives? I would like to know how this translates into tribal sovereignty, as the Shelly administration stated in a Farmington Daily Times article last month. What precisely is the long-term plan of the Shelly administration and the council delegates? Power plants are closing down all over the country. Four Corners is one of the oldest. Its engineers will tell you that they have to continually jump start the thing because it’s constantly falling apart. If the tribal government is really thinking that they will turn around and sell Navajo Mine coal to the operators of the Four Corners Power Plant, that is without a doubt very limited planning. APS recently announced that they are shutting down three units, which means a direct reduction in coal demand for that facility.
What’s more, is this really all our tribal government can come up with? Why lock ourselves down this path that has ill served our people as a whole? There are other alternatives, like solar and wind. There is potential, as a 2008 report: Energy and Economic Alternatives to Desert Rock spelled out. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to take a path that is much more in line with our traditional beliefs of sustainability, respect and reciprocity? Or are we going to continue down a path of increased pollution and social and environmental injustice?

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