FLAGSTAFF, ARIZ. — CITING his ``trust responsibility for the Navajo and Hopi tribes,'' Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan Jr. has decided to defer action on Peabody Coal Company's request for a long-term operating permit for its Black Mesa coal mine in northeastern Arizona. Mr. Lujan's decision was welcomed by Hopi and Navajo leaders who have mounted a unified campaign to convince the secretary of the need for more study of Peabody's effects on the Navajo aquifer, the source of drinking and irrigation water for both tribes.
More than 115 million gallons of water from the aquifer are used every month to pump crushed coal from Black Mesa through a slurry line to a southern California Edison power plant in Laughlin, Nev., 273 miles from the mine.
Over the past year, Hopi and Navajo communities near the mine have experienced the most serious water shortages in recent memory. Streams, springs, and wells that have been reliable water sources for generations are drying up, and the tribes blame Peabody's massive water consumption for the problem.
Secretary Lujan's recent decision will allow continued use of the slurry pipeline while studies of its effects on tribal water supplies and of alternative ways of transporting coal from the Black Mesa mine are carried out.
Peabody says there is no scientific evidence that the slurry line is causing water shortages, which it blames on a prolonged drought. ``We are considering legal action to secure our rights to go on using the slurry pipeline from Black Mesa,'' says company spokesman Ed Sullivan.
One factor that may have helped convince Lujan to side with the tribes is the cooperative stance they have adopted in working to protect their water. A bitter dispute over land has soured relations between Hopi and Navajo tribal governments for more than a decade, but recently the tribes have begun to work together on road and airport construction projects.
Hopi Tribal chairman Vernon Masayesva says he has been ``in constant touch with Navajo interim president [Leonard] Haskie about this Peabody water issue. The two of us met with Secretary Lujan twice before he announced his decision last week.'' Mr. Masayesva adds that ``recognizing that we are going to continue to have differences over land, the secretary's decision shows that when our two tribes work together, we can have a significant impact. And we are in agreement that we must protect our water. In this dry country, it's the most precious resource that we have.''
There are more than 200,000 Navajos and just 15,000 Hopi Indians. Hopi Reclamation Specialist Steve Blodgett says, ``A lot of people think that Mr. Lujan made his mind up when he saw the Navajo were with us on this issue. Their clout may have swung the balance.''
``We certainly agree that Hopi-Navajo cooperation was very important in convincing Secretary Lujan to help us on this water issue,'' says Navajo press officer Lenora Begay, who thinks cooperation on water problems ``could be a beginning'' in efforts to resolve the tribes' longstanding differences over land.
Traditional religious leaders, who are a major force in both tribes, particularly among the Hopi, say the slurry pipeline is a secondary issue.
``Mining is a desecration of our land,'' says Marilyn Harris, an elder who represents the traditional Hopi of the Second Mesa villages. ``We're glad to see that the elected [tribal] government is trying to protect our water. But these governments don't represent the Hopi people, and if they hadn't allowed mining in the first place, our water wouldn't be in danger now.''