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By Stephen Lee
Arizona residents and environmentalists are growing increasingly worried about the cleanup of a large coal mine that’s moving swiftly toward closure.Peabody Energy Corp., the mine’s operator, promises that the reclamation will be done right.
If it’s not, locals fear the Navajo and Hopi tribes in the northern part of the state will be left with a parched, ravaged homeland that might never be fully restored.
Peabody’s Kayenta Mine in Arizona provides coal to the massive Navajo Generating Station 80 miles to the northwest. In 2015, the mine produced 6.8 million tons of coal.
But cheap natural gas has dented the power plant’s profitability, and in February its owners voted to close it by Dec. 23, 2019. Because the mine has no other customers and no rail link to the outside world, when the plant closes, the mine will close, too.
Peabody told Bloomberg BNA that the company set aside a $235 million surety bond for reclamation at Kayenta. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement confirmed that amount and said it deems it adequate.
“We are a guest on Navajo and Hopi lands and operate at the behest of the tribes,” Peabody said in an emailed statement.
Political leaders at the Navajo and Hopi tribes want the power plant and mine to stay open because their economies rely heavily on them.
But some environmental advocates question whether the $235 million bond will be enough to reclaim the 35.8 square miles that have been mined at Kayenta once the mine shuts down.
One of them is Brad Bartlett, an environmental law professor at the University of Denver, who says none of the Kayenta lands have reached the final stage of reclamation necessary before Peabody can get its bond back, despite the fact that the mine has been active for 40 years and that the company is supposed to reclaim the land as it goes.
Bartlett has represented tribal conservation groups in litigation against Peabody.
One reason the final stage of reclamation, or Phase III, hasn’t been reached is that doing so requires Peabody not only to reclaim the land but also to replace the water it has used, Bartlett told Bloomberg BNA. Peabody maintains it does not have to replace the water to achieve Phase III compliance. It also says the total water use over the life of both the Kayenta mine and an older mine on the same tract, Black Mesa, will be less than 0.1 percent of the water volume stored in the aquifer. The mine uses 1,200 acre feet of water per year, according to the company.
“Before Peabody moved in, there used to be a lot of natural springs that produced water on their own,” Percy Deal, a former Navajo tribal council member who leaves near the mine, told Bloomberg BNA. “It seeped out of the ground. You would see pools of water here and there. None of those are currently working, not one bit.”
The fundamental water problem is that Peabody has been drawing so much water from the subsurface aquifer that it no longer connects to the surface, according to Bartlett. Peabody denies that, saying the aquifer is recharged every year through the hydrologic cycle by some 13,000 acre-feet per year.
But Bartlett said the aquifer has dropped by 150 feet in some places.
“Where [Peabody] will find that replacement water, I don’t know,” he said. “It strikes me as an enormous amount of money.”
Carolyn Johnson, retired executive director of the Citizens Coal Council, shares those concerns, saying the damage to the underground aquifer is the primary reason Peabody’s $235 million bond won’t be enough for a complete reclamation.
“We don’t even know that it’s fixable,” Johnson told Bloomberg BNA. “I’m not sure the techniques are out there. There are other things they can do, which would be very costly, to bring water in for those people. But it’s never going to be like it was before mining.”
Because of the technical uncertainty about how to reclaim the aquifer, Johnson said she couldn’t estimate what it would cost.
“I don’t know how to put a number to it,” she said. “You’re trying to create a number where you don’t even have the science. But I know that $235 million isn’t going to do it, because it’s so many acres, and boy, that mine is huge.”
OSMRE didn’t respond to questions about how it arrived at the $235 million figure. Ellen Pfister, an affiliate representative of the Northern Plains Resource Council who helped lobby Congress for the passage of the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act in the 1970s, said OSMRE’s cost estimates are based on what it would cost the agency to complete the work, including equipment and labor costs.
“I don’t blame those people for being concerned,” Pfister told Bloomberg BNA, referring to the Navajo and Hopi. “I’d want to know where the water is that they’re planning to use [to fill the aquifer]. I’d want to know what quality it is, and how much of it is there. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to question that.”
Only 56 percent of the mined lands at Kayenta are subject to Phase III standards for the bond to be released back to Peabody, according to OSMRE documents. The remaining lands are subject to less demanding standards and don’t address water. Of all the land mined, OSMRE has approved reclamation on only 18 percent, all subject to the lower standards.
Other concerns have arisen over the reclamation of the land. Deal said the Kayenta tract used to be home to large groves of pinyon, pine and cedar trees, along with other natural plants and herbs that were used for food, medication and cultural purposes, such as making dye for coloring wool.
But now those trees and plants are gone, and “almost 100 percent” of them haven’t been replaced, Deal said. “It looks like a bare spot; it doesn’t look natural,” he said.
Peabody spokeswoman Beth Sutton denied that charge, telling Bloomberg BNA that the company has restored between 16,000 and 18,000 acres of land at Kayenta. Those lands are now up to 10 times more productive for livestock grazing than native range land, according to a Peabody fact sheet.
But Deal said the new vegetation Peabody has planted is “pure grass—no trees, no plants.” Largely as a result, native elk, deer, antelope, turkey, eagles and hawks are now rarely seen, Deal said.
Navajo tribe member Nicole Horseherder agreed with Deal’s account.
“You have this huge grassland, and the grass is very sparse,” Horseherder told Bloomberg BNA. “There’s a lot of bare spots. The grassland is dying. It’s very poor.”
Daniel Benally Jr., also a Navajo tribe member, gave Bloomberg BNA a contradictory account of Peabody’s land reclamation efforts. Benally said the company has restored many medicinal plants and improved the land for cattle grazing and sheepherding.
“The vegetation’s so good that the wildlife has come back,” Benally said. He also said the natural springs at Kayenta have been running.
Benally is a Peabody employee, and he spoke to Bloomberg BNA with Sutton present. When asked to comment on Deal’s observations, Sutton told him not to answer and ended the interview.
Sutton further said Peabody has been reclaiming five acres for every new acre it mines.
But Bartlett said that ratio is “extraordinarily high,” and that it could suggest that much of the land that was supposed to be reclaimed years ago is only now being attended to.
The figure also indicates that “there’s going to be a lot of jobs going forward” once the mine shuts down, Bartlett said. “To those people who might be worried about losing their jobs, it sounds to me like there’s a heck of a lot of reclamation to be done out there.”
OSMRE said it has inspected the Kayenta mine “and determined that contemporaneous reclamation [has been] completed well.”
Still, local residents’ concerns are exacerbated by the state of Peabody’s old Black Mesa Mine, which stands on the same parcel of land and shut down in 2005. Twelve years later, many of the buildings and structures at Black Mesa are still standing.
“Everything that Peabody built to carry on the operations—the buildings, a huge water tank, everything—is still there,” Deal said. “It’s never been decommissioned, never been brought down. The only thing they did was put up a chain link fence and lock and a sign that says ‘Keep Out.’”
Sutton said the reclamation at Black Mesa will begin this month, and that preparation for dismantling the structures is underway.
Meanwhile, the Navajo Generating Station’s future remains dim. Salt River Project, one of the plant’s owners, has imposed a July 1 deadline to hammer out a lease extension with the Navajo Nation, whose land it is on, to keep the plant running until Dec. 23, 2019, with decommissioning and remediation of the facility starting afterward.
Otherwise, SRP says it will have to close the plant immediately in order to decommission it by the end of 2019. The Navajo Nation will hold a vote June 21 on the extension agreement SRP offered.
No outside buyers have stepped forward to take over the plant when the current lease expires, but Peabody is actively looking for a buyer.
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