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Effects of mining activity in Black Mesa’s N-Aquifer go unacknowledged

July 24, 2023
Jennifer Goodman
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Key Findings

The U.S. Department of the Interior has failed to hold Peabody Western Coal Company responsible for the effects of its decades-long mining activities in the Black Mesa region of Arizona.

Despite the recent release of reclamation bonds, neither Peabody nor OSMRE have addressed the critical issue of Peabody’s overuse of groundwater in the region.

The validity of the data produced by the USGS and Peabody is questionable, and the DOI should require the completion of a valid, unbiased hydrological study of the Black Mesa.

OSMRE decisions may have been fair decades ago—when the impact of climate change was not so severe—but the standards and expectations of reclamation plans made in the 1990s are unsuitable for the reality of 2023.

Executive Summary

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has an obligation to hold coal companies accountable for the environmental damage caused by their mining activities. Despite that obligation, its Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) has begun releasing bonds that were an incentive for Peabody to adequately restore the land damaged by their mining activity in the Black Mesa region of the Navajo Nation. The release disregards the fact that OSMRE has been on notice for decades about the material damage to Peabody’s use of water from the Navajo Aquifer (N-Aquifer) in the Black Mesa region.

Peabody used hundreds of thousands of gallons of water daily from one of the only potable sources of water in the Black Mesa region, which is located in the Four Corners desert region of Arizona and is on reservation land for both the Navajo and Hopi tribes (See Figure 1). Peabody’s mines operated for almost five decades on tribal lands, depleting scarce water sources, yet OSMRE did not include water use or aquifer depletion in its considerations of environmental damages caused by Peabody. The oversight demonstrates a flaw in OSMRE’s criteria for environmental reclamation and a failure on the part of the DOI to hold Peabody accountable and uphold its trust responsibilities to the Navajo and Hopi tribes in Black Mesa.

Figure 1: Map of Affected Areas on Navajo and Hopi Reservation Land

Map of affected areas on Navajo and Hopi reservation land

Source: IEEFA.

Jennifer Goodman

Jennifer Goodman is the former 2022-2023 Fellow for IEEFA. She works in collaboration with the Grand Canyon Trust to compile research and write reports on coal mining activity on tribal lands in the Southwestern United States.

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