Clear Skies in the Desert
by Chris Clarke

Laughlin, Nevada, is a green, well-watered oasis in North America's driest desert. It is hemmed in by rock surrounding the valley like oven walls. To the west, the corrugated Newberry Mountains stand sere and remote. The Mohave people, whose Fort Mohave reservation is three miles south of Laughlin, revere a petroglyph-filled canyon on the tallest peak of the Newberrys, from which the original single human tribe was divided by the Creator, Mutavela. A host of neighboring tribes share this origin myth. Mutavela sent the new groups in all four directions. The Mohave, the west people, settled along the Colorado River. Other groups went east, north, and south. Those who lied were turned white.

If some hold Grapevine Canyon in the Newberrys to be sacred, few would describe Laughlin as anything but profane. Laughlin offers a typically American respite to the visitor: prime rib, lounge acts, and - of course - gambling. Just north of where Nevada, Arizona, and California meet, Laughlin has grown dramatically in the last few decades. In 1964 it boasted four guest rooms and 12 slot machines. Now five million people visit this swelling city each year.

But when Laughlin made the news in December 2005, it wasn't because of a grandmother hitting a jackpot or one gaming corporation buying out another one. It was due to a forbidding industrial facility just south of town along Casino Drive. The Mohave Generating Station, a 1.58-gigawatt coal-fired power plant operated by Southern California Edison (SCE), shut down. SCE –majority owner of the plant with LA Water and Power, the Salt River Project, and Nevada Power Company–was ordered to reduce the pollution coming from the stack before the end of 2005. Instead, SCE shut the plant down on December 1.

The closing marked a turning point in a controversy that had spanned decades and involved the genocidal forced relocation of indigenous people, the desertification of an irreplaceable landscape, poisoning people with cancer-causing radioactive waste, pollution of once preternaturally clear desert skies over six Western states, and conspiracy to manipulate and defraud the people of the Hopi and Navajo nations.

Determining the beginning of the controversy is an arbitrary exercise. Chester A. Arthur, 21st president of the United States, is as good a person to start with as any.

On December 16, 1882, troubled by increasing Mormon settlement in the Four Corners region, President Arthur issued an executive order removing about 4,000 acres of land in northern Arizona from the public domain, and making it a reservation for "the Moqui [Hopi] Indians and other Indians that the President should decide to settle thereon." The US government suspected there were large coal posits on Hopi land–which turned out, when surveyed in 1909, to be the largest in the US–and that other valuable minerals might be found there as well. Though the US was in the business of giving mineral rights away to those who might develop them, the Mormons' loyalty was suspect in those days, due to conflict between their church and the United States.

So Arthur removed the lands of the Hopi from the public main and granted them to a people with little interest in industrial development or large scale mineral resource traction. There the coal would sit until the United States deemed it necessary to mine it. When the time came, the Indians could easily be moved aside.

There is a hole in the floor of a typical kiva, the ceremonial room of the Hopi. The sipapu symbolizes the entrance to a different world, the Third World, in the Earth. The Hopi say the first people emerged from the original Sipapu, in the Grand Canyon at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, and that they have lived on the Colorado Plateau ever since. Anthropologists conjecture that the ancestors of the Hopi migrated from Asia over the Bering Land bridge, perhaps 12,000 years ago. Science and the Hopi origin myth agree, however, that the Hopi have lived in what is now northern Arizona for a very long time. Most anthropologists now agree with the contention of the traditional Hopi that the Hopi are descended from the Ancestral Puebloan people. The Ancestral Puebloans, often called Anasazi, lived in the area as early as 2,000 years ago, and held ceremonies in kivas with sipapus in their floors. Hopi farmers have bred distinctive, drought-resistant crops over the millennia. The roots of Hopi corn delve deep into the earth, subsisting only on the scant precipitation and what groundwater they can find.

The Dine, also called Navajo, are relative latecomers, migrants from the Canadian taiga where the closely related Dene still live. Many historians date their arrival in the area at around 1500 AD.

The Dine population grew throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and more and more of them moved onto those lands set aside by the Arthur administration. Many Hopi found themselves living happily with their relatively new neighbors. Trade blossomed, as did friendships and marriages.

But conflict grew as well. There were Hopi who looked askance at the increasing numbers of Dine living on their traditional lands. Hopi are among the least warlike people on the planet, so the time-honored human solution of armed conflict was unlikely. Those Hopi who were willing to use American law to defend what they saw as encroachment were out of luck. According to US law, the Hopi did not have exclusive legal title to their own land. The Arthur administration's proclamation stated that the reservation was for the use of "the Moqui Indians and other Indians that the President should decide to settle thereon."

This is the cultural context that allowed the Mohave Generating Station to be built. But this is not a story of a long-simmering resentment, a "centuries-old dispute" among Indians, as too many newspaper stories have characterized it. The conflict was there, and it was real. But it was the energy industry that went into Hopiland, deliberately exacerbated the tensions, and committed fraud against the Hopi and genocide against the Dine.

That energy industry influence was long personified by a Mormon lawyer named John Boyden.

By the 1950s, conflict between the Mormons and the federal government was long over, and the local Mormon power structure meshed nearly seamlessly with that of the feds. In 1951 the Bureau of Indian Affairs appointed Boyden, who was then a bishop in the Mormon church, as land claims attorney for the Hopi. Boyden, who had made a fair amount of money representing Native groups as they leased land to mining companies, quickly set about remaking the Hopi political world. In 1951 the Hopi had no tribal council, and no central leadership with the legal authority to lease land to the coal companies. Boyden persuaded a group of Hopi Mormon converts that the income from coal leases would be of immense benefit to the tribe. In 1955, that group was recognized by the BLM as the official government of the Hopi, after an election with a turnout of about 10 percent.

Norman Littell was Boyden's counterpart with the Dine. The Navajo Tribal Council's BLM-designated land claims attorney, Littell had talked the Council into signing a contract awarding him a tenth of all coal revenues earned by the tribe.

But an obstacle remained to exploitation of the coal deposits: Arthur's proclamation granted clear legal title to the land to no particular tribe. The Hopi had priority in the proclamation, and Executive Branch actions in 1891 and 1943 had affirmed exclusive Hopi control of 630,000 acres of the land specified in Arthur's proclamation. The land in question, however, where the coveted coal lay buried, was not part of those 630,000 acres, and was mainly occupied by Dine families. In order to mine the coal legally–and to properly disburse royalties–land ownership had to be adjudicated. In 1958, Boyden and Littell filed a lawsuit between the tribes after a special act of Congress, Public Law 85-547, allowed them to do so. The case was decided in 1962 and upheld by the Supreme Court. The decision gave the Hopi exclusive control over 630,000 acres and recognized Dine "squatters' rights" on the remainder of the 1882 Moqui Reservation, granting 50 percent of the potential coal royalties to the Dine. Under the terms of the suit, the land outside the 630,000 acres was referred to as the "Joint Use Area."

Some years after Boyden died, Peabody Coal Company documents confirmed something people in Indian Country had long known. While Boyden was representing the Hopi in negotiations with the Navajo Tribal Council, the US Government, and the coal industry, he was also in the employ of Peabody Coal–a serious conflict of interest that went unquestioned by the powers that be.

In 1966, Peabody Coal signed leases with both tribal Councils to mine coal on 64,000 acres of land in the Black Mesa area, near Kayenta. Unsurprisingly, Boyden negotiated leases that awarded the Hopi far less in royalties than the market would have suggested. Forty thousand acres of the leased land was within Joint Use Area boundaries, and the rest on the Navajo Reservation.

Traditional Hopi sued to block mining of these largest coal deposits in the US under Black Mesa on the grounds that strip mining violated both Hopi and Dine traditional religious beliefs. The US courts discarded the suit. Mining began in 1970 at the Black Mesa and Kayenta mines. In 1971, the Mohave generating station began burning coal from the Black Mesa mine. The Black Mesa area was inaccessible by rail. The coal was shipped to Laughlin by way of a novel delivery system: a slurry line. Ground-water was pumped from the Navajo Aquifer, or N-Aquifer, at the rate of 3.3 million gallons a day. The coal, ground into small chunks, was mixed with water and pumped through an 18-inch pipe, 273 miles to Laughlin. There the coal was extracted from the slurry and burned at a rate of about 16,000 tons per day. Coal from the Kayenta mine was moved by conveyor belt and train to the Navajo Generating Station above Glen Canyon dam.

The N-Aquifer is the sole source of drinking water for the Hopi, and for Dine in the west half of their Reservation. With Peabody Coal pumping a billion gallons a year for their slurry line, traditional Hopi springs began to shrink, and one by one wells dried up. Deprived of groundwater, wild vegetation began to wither.

Peabody's allies decided to ramp up their coal mining.

In the early 1970s, stories began to trickle into the major US papers about a range war that loomed between the Dine and the Hopi. Dine encroaching on Hopi land, the stories said, were becoming increasingly brazen. There were even reports of threats of violence. Most locals, however, said there had been no real change in the mood between Hopi and those Dine living in the Joint Use Area. Occasional confrontations took place, but there had been no more tension than usual. Evans and Associates–a PR firm hired by Boyden–had been staging a Potemkin range war, setting up deliberate confiscations of Dine livestock on Hopi land for the news cameras. Among Evans and Associates' other clients was West Associates, a trade association of strip mining and power plant building concerns. The PR firm that represented the Hopi also represented corporations buying coal from the Hopi.

At Boyden's urging, and prompted by illusory fears of a violent range war, Congress passed the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act, amended in 1977 as Public Law 93-531. The Act divided the Joint Use Area into two equal sections of 911,041 acres: the Hopi Partitioned Lands and Navajo Partitioned Lands. Any Hopi living in the NPL were to move, as were any Dine living in the HPL. There were about 100 Hopi living in the NPL. More than 10,000 Dine lived in the HPL.

The Hopi on the NPL moved with little protest. Some Dine moved more or less voluntarily. The Land Settlement Act provided for land to be granted to the Navajo government for resettlement of families. About 325,000 acres near Sanders, Arizona, an area known as the "New Lands," was bought by the US government for this purpose in 1980. The land was for sale cheap; a dam at United Nuclear's uranium mine 60 miles upstream had burst the year before, spilling 94 million gallons of radioactive wastewater and 1,100 tons of solid toxic waste into the Rio Puerco, which flows through the New Lands. Dine resisting relocation from the HPL were threatened with removal to this toxic area.

Over more than two decades 12,000 Dine were relocated from the HPL, the largest forced relocation of Native Americans in the twentieth century. The relocation was not without its opponents, even within the power structure. Disheartened by the process, Leon Berger–a member of the Navajo Hopi Land Commission, which was overseeing the relocation–resigned his post in 1982 saying "The forcible relocation of over 10,000 Navajo people is a tragedy of injustice that will be a blot on the conscience of this country for many generations."

About 250 Dine families from the Big Mountain area refused relocation and live there still. Some of them charged that the Hopi did not need the land, as they limit themselves to the farms near their Three Mesas settlements. Big Mountain is prime grazing range, with numerous springs and relatively lush foliage. In 1996 the Dine and Hopi reached an "accommodation agreement," in which Dine who wished to stay in the HPL could lease their land from the Hopi for 75 years. The agreement forestalled further forced relocation, though the lives of Dine on the HPL are far from rosy. A pending bill proposes the termination of the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation on September 30, 2008, potentially cutting off future federal aid to relocated Dine families.

Many Dine found employment at the Peabody mines, some of the best-paying jobs on the reservation. As Peabody continued to pump 3.3 million gallons of water a day from the N-Aquifer for its slurry lines, springs above the aquifer continued to recede or dry up altogether. As it dug deeper into Black Mesa, Peabody found it was mining coal of lower quality. The coal needed to be washed to be usable, requiring more water from the N-Aquifer.

In 2002 the Hopi and Navajo Tribal Councils passed resolutions demanding that N-Aquifer use for the slurry line cease by December 2005. Each tribe derived a significant part of its revenues from the mine, and each Tribal Council had been historically reluctant to interfere with that source of funds. Despite the fact that Boyden and Littell had won Peabody sweetheart deals, with the tribes getting a fraction of the mining revenues other landowners might have enjoyed, the royalties were nonetheless significant, to the tune of $20 million per year between the two nations. The councils' willingness to demand an end to use of N-Aquifer water indicates the strength of feeling opponents brought to the table.

In 2004, Peabody petitioned the BLM's Office of Surface Mining to renew its mining permits and consolidate the Black Mesa and Kayenta mines into a single enterprise. The proposal would have increased the rate of mining by 20 percent, and authorized the use of additional N-Aquifer water to wash the lower-quality coal in a new on-site facility. The Black Mesa Trust, an environmental and native rights group, organized a grassroots response to Peabody's application; the feds received thousands of comments in opposition to the increased use of the N-Aquifer. Moved by the breadth of the opposition locally and across the country, the Hopi and Navajo Tribal Councils offered alternative ways to move the coal to the Mohave plant, chief among them tapping the Coconino Aquifer, a primary source of drinking water for much of northern Arizona. Flagstaff, Holbrook, Joseph City, Winslow, and the White Mountain Apache Nation rely on the C-Aquifer, and plans to tap it for the slurry line raised ire despite a Bureau of Reclamation study that claimed the slurry line would have little impact.

Peabody was on record as fearing the brackish water in the Coconino, which needs significant treatment to be made potable, would erode the slurry line. SCE proposed drilling a well in Leupp, Arizona, between Flagstaff and Winslow, to tap the Coconino, then pipe it to the Black Mesa mine across 100 miles of terrain where many residents had no running water. After some protest, a drinking water pipeline was added to the plan. Dine living near Leupp remained wary, as did other users of the C-aquifer's water.

Burning coal pollutes the air. During each year of its operation, the Mohave Generating Station put an average of 40,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 10,000 tons of smoke and soot into the air, to blow across the Grand Canyon and Four Corners country. The plant was one of the largest single sources of airborne sulfur dioxide in the West. It dumped other pollutants into the air as well: almost 20,000 tons of nitrogen oxides and 2,000 tons of particulate matter per year, and just under ten million tons of CO2. In the desert Southwest, views of a hundred miles or more were commonplace as recently as the 1960s. Those views became first rare and then more or less nonexistent. In Clark County near Laughlin, residents complained of "chocolate skies" and sulfur odors when the wind was light. The plant operated with virtually no emissions controls for the first three decades of its existence, and an acid haze settled over the desert.

In 1998 the Grand Canyon Trust, Sierra Club, and the National Parks and Conservation Association sued Mohave's owners for routinely violating emissions laws and regulations. The next year, the two sides reached a settlement. By January 2006, the settlement decreed that the operators of the Mohave plant would install pollution control devices.

In 1999 the US EPA, which had written regulations in 1980 protecting visibility at national parks, released a report finding that the Mohave plant was a significant contributor to haze at the Grand Canyon. The report took pains to point out that the Mohave plant was not the source of most of the haze: the Los Angeles basin, with its millions of automobiles, likely held that honor. Still, the EPA held that the Mohave Generating Station was the largest single cause of haze in the Canyon. In 2000, the EPA proposed to require that those pollution control devices required by the 1998 settlement be installed on both units at Mohave by April 2006.

Nothing happened for six years. SCE took no action on the pollution control devices. The partners were unwilling to spend the $1.1 billion to install the equipment without a guaranteed source of inexpensive coal. SCE asked Peabody to increase production at Black Mesa, increasing consumption of the N-aquifer by one-third. That proved politically infeasible, and it became clear a C-aquifer pipeline would not be operational by the consent decree's December 31, 2005 deadline. SCE and the Hopi and Navajo tribal councils sought an extension of the deadline, but the environmental groups found nothing in the extension to guarantee future compliance with the agreement. In December 2005, SCE and its partners announced that they would be cutting their losses, closing the Mohave Generating Station at least for the foreseeable future.

As the Mohave plant was the only consumer of coal from the Black Mesa mine, that operation shut down as well. So did the slurry line, and the pumps filling it with water from the N-Aquifer. And gone with the smoke from the Mohave plant are about 240 jobs at the Black Mesa mine, well-paying jobs in an area with 40 percent unemployment. The Mohave plant employed 340 people, many of them from the nearby Fort Mohave Indian Reservation. The economic toll of the closing on many native families is dire, at least in the short term.

Closing the Mohave generating plant did not bring this issue to a close. The Kayenta mine is still in operation. Plans are afoot to build coal gasification plants on the Hopi reservation, generating theoretically cleaner-burning carbon monoxide and hydrogen from coal supplied by Peabody. Given SCE's years of flouting environmental law and the sudden windfall in the form of lucrative pollution credits it may receive from shutting the plant, Black Mesa Trust is advocating that the California Public Utilities Commission award any pollution credit money to support alternative energy projects on the Hopi and Navajo reservations.

But the closing of the Mohave Generating Station is a watershed event nonetheless. For the time being, at least, the N-aquifer may slowly recharge with each winter rain. Historic springs may not dry out after all, and the juniper woodlands of the Hopi and Navajo reservations may slow their conversion to arid grassland. Relocated Dine people still contend with cultural trauma, elevated cancer rates, and staggeringly high poverty rates, but some of the land they revere is at least a bit safer.

And the air will be a bit less hazy over the Grand Canyon, at least for now.

© Earth Island Journal Summer 2006