Speak Your Piece: Coal and the Navajo

[imgbelt img=navajo_mine_machines.jpg ]Desperate for jobs and tax revenue, the Navajo Nation buys a coal mine. Community groups question whether the old owner, BHP Billiton, walked off with $85 million and left the Nation holding the bag.


interview with Indian Country Today Media Network.

The mine, located near Farmington, New Mexico, employs about 800 people, mostly Navajos. It delivers $41 million annually for the tribe, about one third of the Navajo Nation’s annual general fund.

a billboard erected this month on U. S. Highway 64, about 10 miles from Shiprockm, New Mexico.

The billboard states that the process for purchasing the mine was conducted without public accountability or transparency and describes the deal as blow to tribal sovereignty.

reports that BHP’s worldwide productivity agenda is in full swing, assisted by its strategy of “portfolio simplification,” such as selling its Navajo Mine for $85 million to a bunch of desperate Natives focused on the short-term economic survival of their people.

Coal is not only a dirty business but one that is in decline with an uncertain future in global markets. The Four Corners Power Plant, currently the sole consumer of coal from the Navajo Mine, was recently sold to the Arizona Public Service Company by Southern California Edison Company. The California-based company sold the plant to conform to the state’s thrust to divest itself of coal and invest in renewable energy.

Duane “Chili” Yazzie, president of the Navajo Nation Shiprock Chapter (a unit of local government of the Navajo Nation), expressed concerns about this, as well as current criminal investigations underway for several council members.  Navajo Nation Speaker Johnny Naize, the main sponsor for the bill creating NTEC, is under investigation for bribery and conspiracy.

Unfortunately, this scenario is not new for the Navajo Nation.  In the 1950s several energy companies with their sights on Navajo coal banded together creating Western Energy Supply and Transmission Associates (WEST). They built massive coal and nuclear plants in the region fueled by Navajo coal and uranium, forcing relocation of thousands of Navajos and Hopis from their traditional lands in the process. The environmental and public health fallout has been enormous, including high cancer rates, respiratory illnesses, depletion and pollution of the scarce water supply.

Activist Winona LaDuke points to a National Academy of Sciences report suggesting that restoration of arid areas such as the Navajo Mine location is not possible. She further notes in an article for Indian Country Today that more than 50,000 people depend on drinking water from the Navajo Aquifer, which immediately adjoins the Navajo Mine area.

Jihan Gearon, executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, a grass roots group, says it’s easy to see what is going on. “Even Navajo residents who are not organizers, just regular community people, can see what’s happening,” she told the Huffington Post last year. “Coal has made us economically dependent on our own cultural destruction.”


Mary Annette Pember is a freelance journalist and photographer who has written numerous tribal-affairs stories for the Daily Yonder. She also is a regular correspondent for Indian Country Today Media Network.