Leaders Disguise a Deep Tribal Dispute

Since when did journalists rely on official press releases for news? Coverage of a recent ban on environmental groups in Navajo Country misses what's happened and what's happening.

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Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr., made a big stir in the mainstream media when he announced his support for the Hopi Tribal Council’s recent unanimous decision to ban environmentalist groups from their reservation in Arizona. Leaders from these tribes charge that environmental groups, intent only on their own agendas, are seeking to rob Hopis and Navajos of jobs and income from coal-fired power plants.

According to Hopi council spokesperson Tina May, tribal leaders passed a resolution banning groups such as the Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust and the National Parks Conservation Association from the reservation. “On-reservation organizations sponsored by or affiliated with the groups are no longer welcome on the Hopi reservation,” according to a tribal press release.

The council claims that these groups have hurt the tribe’s economy by working to close the Navajo Generation Station, a coal-fired power plant near Page, Arizona.  The Salt River Project based in Phoenix operates the Station. Hopi council members claim that revenue from the plant makes up more than 70% of the Hopi’s governmental revenue and supports hundreds of reservation families.
 
According to USA Today, tribal and non-Indian environmental groups are pressuring the EPA to do further study on the Navajo Generating Station’s contribution to smog over the Grand Canyon.

May reported that environmentalists’ successful shutdown of the Mohave Generation Station in Laughlin, Nevada, in 2005 cost the Hopi tribe more than $6.5 million per year.

Cable Hoover/Gallup Independent, via reznet
In July, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr., decried environmental injustices done to native tribes 60 years ago in uranium mining. Now he wants environmentalists off Indian land.

President Shirley, already angry with environmentalists for opposing the $2.5 billion Desert Rock Energy Project on the Navajo Reservation, has made news when he threw his support behind the Hopi Council’s efforts to ban environmentalists from their reservation.
 
For American Indian journalists, however, the real story of this particular event is the revelation of mainstream journalists lack of experience in covering Indian Country.

“Can you imagine journalists simply reporting verbatim a press release from President Obama without doing some sort of background on the information presented in the document?” asks Marley Shebala, Navajo and Zuni reporter for the Navajo Times.

Shebala says that the mainstream press too often resorts to this kind of superficial reporting in handling stories from Indian Country. Journalists forget that tribal politicians, while Navajo or Hopi, or whatever, are still politicians trying to put their motivations, projects and government leadership in the best possible light.
 
“There is a big difference between elected leadership and traditional leadership in Indian Country; reporters need to know this and dig deeper into the community when reporting on political issues, “ Shebala points out. Journalists would never assume that the mayor of a city or governor of a state speaks for the entire population.  Journalists should use that same level of skepticism when covering tribes, she says.

Shebala has worked in and around Window Rock, Arizona, for over 20 years, reporting on tribes in the area. Since 1993 she has worked at the Navajo Times, one of the few independent Indian newspapers in the country.

According to Shebala, the “clean coal” issue is gaining national attention as coal companies put their huge collective economic power behind ads and campaigns to convince the public that the newer coal power and mining efforts are environmentally safe.

“There’s no such thing as clean coal,” maintains Shebala.

Shebala, who was named community journalist of the year by the Arizona Press Club, is a veteran reporter who has covered many environmental clashes between mining companies and tribes. Most directly, she reported on the bitter relationship between Peabody Energy and the Navajo and Hopi tribes. With a group of students, she produced a documentary about how the company used millions of gallons of pristine drinking water located under the Black Mesa mine to carry coal in the form of slurry some 273 miles via pipeline to the Mohave Generating Station operated by Southern California Edison. This is in a region where many residents do not have access to potable water.

The coal industry and tribes have a long, complicated and often ugly history in the southwest. The Peabody Coal Company, now Peabody Energy, operates coalmines on both the Hopi and Navajo reservations.

According to an excellent story by John Dougherty of the Phoenix New Times, Peabody obtained leases in the 1960s to mine coal on the Hopi and Navajo reservations. Peabody sold coal from its Black Mesa Mine to the Mohave Generating Station, operated by Southern California Edison in Laughlin, Nevada.  Peabody chose to build the longest water slurry pipeline to move tons of pulverized coal over 273 miles. To do this work, they used over 4, 000 acre-feet per year of the clean drinking water beneath the Mesa. For the land, the Hopis were paid only $1.67 per acre-foot. And who advised the Hopis to make these contracts?  Their attorney, John Boyden, represented the Hopis in their negotiations with Peabody but forgot to tell them he was also in the employ of Peabody Coal.

Not surprisingly, a number of grassroots environmental groups such as H.O.P.I, Hopis for Political Initiatives, the Navajo Green Economy Coalition and Dooda Desert Rock began to spring up throughout the Navajo and Hopi communities and eventually banded with larger non-Indian groups such as the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and others as they sought control over their land and water.

Although current tribal political leaders might want to paint environmental groups in the area as “outside agitators,” the reality is that the Hopi and Navajo have a long history of environmental activism dating back to the 1950s and earlier, during the days of uranium mining when Kerr-McGee, Union Carbide and the Vanadium Corporation of America showed little or no regard for the health of Indian miners. Workers developed extremely high rates of lung cancer while working with no protection in the mines. After receiving little help from the tribal government, Harry Tome, a Navajo miner and activist, helped bring media attention to the high rates of cancer and death among miners; this helped initiate federal response to the issue.  Grassroots organizations such as the Office of Navajo Miners and others served as important focal points for miners seeking redress and help.

Peabody Coal’s Kayenta Mine sends coal via conveyor belt and rail to the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona.

Currently Peabody Energy operates the Kayenta mine located on a highland plateau called Black Mesa that it operates through lease agreements with the Hopi and Navajo tribes.  Although work at adjacent Black Mesa Mine has be suspended, the company notes on its website that it is “pursuing coal related opportunities with both tribes.”

One of the “related opportunities” includes receiving a “life of the mine” permit for the Peabody Western Coal Black Mesa Project that would extend its lease indefinitely.

This, says Vernon Masayesva, executive director of the Black Mesa Trust and former Hopi chairman, is the real story in Hopiland. It is a story that indicates what he calls a “take-over of the Hopi government by pro-mining legislators.”  Masayesva reports that 40 individual Hopis have filed challenge to the U. S. Office of Surface Mining’s decision to issue the life of mine lease, reports Brenda Norrell in her news blog about indigenous issues.

In Navajo-land, local and outside groups were successful in getting the EPA to revoke the permit for Sithe Global’s proposed Desert Rock Energy Project — a project supported by Chairman Shirley which would have been among the largest coal-fired power plants in the country.  The Durango Telegraph reported that the Navajo watchdog group Dine Care said that this remand would safeguard the health of the entire Four Corners region. Dine Care and others had claimed that the permit process was flawed from the very start because of pre-existing  environmental problems.

The Hopi Tribal Council and Chairman Shirley have argued that the basis for their opposition to outside environmental groups is outsiders’ threat to tribal sovereignty. Former Hopi tribal chairman Ben Nuvasma notes, “the opposition to the environmental groups is not an issue of compromising sovereignty. It is an issue of corporate and financial greed.”

 

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