Navajo Lack Water to Fight COVID-19 Because Coal Company Drained the Tribe’s Aquifer

Navajos line up to get water at a community center   Photo: Credit: Nicole Horseherder, Tó Nizhóní Ání, via Bloomberg

Bloomberg News reports that Peabody Energy, the largest coal producer in the country, operated two coal mines on Navajo and Hopi reservation lands that pulled so much water from the Navajo Aquifer that many wells and springs have now run dry. This comes when water is more necessary than ever for essential hygiene since Covid-19 has hit the Navajo Nation harder than any state. For decades, Peabody’s Black Mesa and Kayenta mines mixed coal with water drawn from the aquifer to form a slurry, which they then sent along pipelines that were hundreds of miles long to fuel the former Mojave and Navajo Generating Stations respectively.

Why This MattersPeabody never replenished the aquifer water it took under a suspect agreement with the Tribes —  as much as 1.3 billion gallons of water from the aquifer annually — and now the mines are shuttered, hundreds of tribe members lost their jobs, and one-third of residents have no running water in the midst of the worst pandemic in generations.  That so many Navajo have to drive for miles to purchase water for essentials like feeding their animals and for drinking is shocking, and clearly it’s exacerbating the devastating COVID outbreak.

The Mines

Peabody operated the mines from the 1960s until recently in order to power the enormous coal plants that provided electricity for Los Angeles and other major cities in the Southwest.  The Black Mesa Mine, which closed in 2005, extracted, pulverized, and mixed coal with water drawn from the aquifer to form a slurry, which it then sent via a 273-mile-long pipeline to the Mojave Generating Station in Nevada.  The Kayenta Mine continued to operate until last August, and when it closed, 750 Navajo and Hopi Tribe members lost their jobs.  For years, the Navajo and Hopi have complained about the lack of water caused by the billions of gallons drained each year by Peabody.  The contracts for the coal and the water use were drawn up by an attorney who apparently sold out the Tribes for enormous fees while simultaneously working for Peabody.  Peabody has yet to begin reclamation on the Kayenta mine and as for water, it claims to provide the Tribes with free water at several sites for daily use.  There is a dispute about whether Peabody’s obligation to restore the surface of the mines means it’s required to recharge the aquifer, too.

The Tribes Lack Water When They Need It Most

For those Navajo and Hopi who lack running, living in the time of COVID is particularly challenging.  One tribal member described it this way.  His “weekly water run provides him with just enough for cooking, cleaning house, and washing the dishes, his hands, and his hair. But what he really wants to do is take a shower. Before the virus spread throughout the Nation, a couple of times a week he’d drop by a tribal chapter house about 20 miles away that provides showers. But it got infected with the virus, so it’s been shut down for the last three weeks or so.” As a result, he has not showered in weeks.

To Go Deeper: Into the shady history of the deals with the Navajo and Hopi, click here and here.

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