Hopi Indians at Odds with Peabody Coal Babbitt Will Rule on Dispute over Water

Article excerpt

As a member of the Hopi Indians' Snake clan, tribal chairman Ferrell Secakuku visits springs in the Arizona desert for secret rituals that his tribe has practiced for hundreds of years.

But Secakuku contends that the springs are drying up because St. Louis-based Peabody Coal Co. pumps a billion gallons of water yearly from the Indians' aquifer for its Black Mesa coal mine.

In a petition that will test the federal government's new policies toward American Indians, the Hopis have asked the Interior Department to force Peabody Western Coal to stop the pumping as a condition for a new mining permit. Instead, the tribe wants Peabody to build a pipeline to carry water from Lake Powell, 50 miles northwest.

The Hopis expect Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to rule soon. "The longer that Secretary Babbitt waits, the more damage is being done," Secakuku said. "Our survival and the survival of our ancient culture hinges on this issue. I don't think the U.S. wants to eradicate us from the face of the earth."

As chairman of the 10,000-member Hopi tribe, Secakuku has one foot in tradition and the other in the modern world of public relations and high-priced lawyers who help his tribe secure water rights. It is the latter role that Secakuku is playing with the Interior Department, says Peabody Coal, as he tries to force the company to build a pipeline that could cost between $30 million and $40 million.

Peabody has operated the Black Mesa mine since 1969. Peabody's royalties and other payments amount to 70 percent of the Hopis' budget and 20 percent of the budget of the neighboring Navajo Nation.

For water, the mine draws from the 3,000-foot-deep N-aquifer and pumps 120,000 gallons of water hourly into a pipeline that carries coal slurry on a 273-mile journey to Southern California Edison's Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev. The plant provides power in Southern California and Nevada.

Peabody Coal disputes the Hopi charge that the aquifer is being drained and has presented experts to make its case. Last fall, the U.S. Geological Survey said models for predicting the drainage are uncertain, adding further confusion. The company argues that a 50-year dry spell is the reason for the Hopis' water problems. …