AN escalating dispute over water use in arid northern Arizona has strained relations between the Peabody Coal Company and the Hopi and Navajo Indians on whose land the company operates the largest coal mine in the United States. The tribes say streams, wells, and springs in this already-parched area - including water sources they have used for hundreds of years - are drying up. And although the tribes reap significant economic benefits from the mine, they blame Peabody's thirsty slurry pipeline for the water shortage.
Each hour, around the clock, the Black Mesa Pipeline uses more than 120,000 gallons of water to transport 640 tons of coal from Peabody's Black Mesa-Kayenta Mine to Southern California Edison's Mojave power station in southern Nevada, 273 miles away.
And Peabody's thirst is not slacking. It now wants to expand the mine from its current size of almost 6,500 acres to more than 20,000 acres.
The tribes have moved to block the mine expansion. They want the US Department of the Interior and Peabody to study water-supply problems in the area of the mine and evaluate alternatives to the slurry method of moving coal.
Peabody says there is no scientific evidence of harm to the Navajo Aquifer, the source of its slurry water.
Company spokesman Ed Sullivan points to a recent study by the Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining (OSM) which concludes - on the basis of estimates only - that rainfall usually recharges the Navajo Aquifer every year with about four to five times the amount of water that the slurry pipeline consumes.
In view of this, Mr. Sullivan says, the tribes' requests for more study are ``ludicrous.'' He blames a prolonged drought which he says has reduced Arizona's rainfall by 80 percent over the last year.
Peabody wants to avoid any slowdown in an operation that, from its standpoint, is working well.
In addition to its sales to Southern California Edison, Peabody sells to a power plant at Page, Ariz. And major sales to Japan are expected if the company is given the go-ahead to expand the mine.
The Hopi and Navajo, who share mineral rights where the mine is located, granted Peabody a 35-year mining lease in 1966. The lease states that Peabody can use subsurface water as long as tribal water supplies are not harmed.
Ordinarily the tribes would have to prove that their water was being depleted to make Peabody reduce its water use. But at this point, when Peabody is asking to expand the size of its mine, the OSM must first find that the company is not overusing tribal water.
Peabody claims that OSM's recent estimates are proof enough, but the tribes are not comfortable with estimates, especially while their water seems to be disappearing.
Roughly 80 percent of the Hopi tribal government's revenues are royalties that Peabody pays the tribe for Black Mesa coal. The elected government of the Navajo Nation also receives large royalties from Peabody, and over 900 Navajo and about 25 Hopi are employed at the mine.
But for both tribes these economic benefits are overshadowed by any hint of danger to the waters that have sustained them for centuries in this near-desert region.
Nearly all 15,000 members of the Hopi tribe rely on the Navajo Aquifer for domestic water, and the age-old system of ``dry-land farming'' that still feeds most Hopi depends on water from the ``washes'' (seasonal streams), springs, and wells that tribal members say are drying up.
US Geological Survey data confirm the observations of the Hopi. March is usually the month with the year's highest water levels. But the USGS reported that Moenkopi Wash, the principal stream that drains Black Mesa, was nearly dry at the town of Moenkopi, 70 miles downstream of the mine, in the last two weeks of March. And a hydrology consulting firm retained by the Hopi reported that a 10-mile section of the wash that usually runs all year was completely dry in March.
The Navajo Aquifer is also vital to the Navajo people. Thousands of Navajo who live in the area around Black Mesa get their domestic water from the aquifer or from waters that interflow with it.
So despite high unemployment and poverty among the Navajo and the many relatively high-paying jobs the mine provides, the tribe's government has joined the Hopi effort to protect the aquifer they share.
The Navajo and Hopi say that better ways to move Black Mesa coal are known and that OSM seems to be siding with Peabody by refusing to consider them.
One option is building a railroad, something that Hopi reclamation specialist Steve Blodgett says is likely to be needed anyway for future coal sales to the Japanese.
Another option would be to drill wells below the Navajo Aquifer to a deeper water source called the C-Aquifer. Water in this aquifer is of lower quality, unfit for human or animal consumption. ``Drilling down to the C-Aquifer is feasible,'' says Mr. Blodgett. ``There's plenty of water there, and if Peabody used it in their slurry pipe, at least they wouldn't be polluting and wasting first-class water the way they are now.''
Blodgett and the Hopi are also asking Peabody and OSM to evaluate an innovative proposal from a Texas energy firm for replacing water in the slurry pipeline with liquid methanol that would both deliver the coal and make it burn more efficiently, reducing air pollution.
``OSM should be looking at these alternatives without our having to prod them,'' Blodgett says. ``They're supposed to regulate mining, but they seem more interested in trying to make sure that nothing interferes with what the mining companies want. It's frustrating.''
If OSM allows the Peabody expansion without requiring the water and coal transportation studies requested by the tribes, the Hopi, and perhaps the Navajo as well, may respond with legal action.
``We certainly feel the law is on our side,'' says Hopi tribal chairman Vernon Masayesva. ``The OSM's estimates about our water are not the kind of information that the law requires. Both our tribe and the Navajo are increasing in population, and we need to know we are going to have enough water to be able to go on living here. There isn't any substitute for good water, but we are sure that Peabody can come up with another, better way of moving coal.''
Peabody spokesman Sullivan says if the tribal governments should succeed in forcing the company to stop using the slurry pipeline, which has been in use since 1970, ``an immediate shutdown of the mine would result.'' He adds that ``we are not considering alternatives to the use of the slurry line for moving our coal, so if the pipeline gets shut down, it's possible the mine could close for good.''
``We don't want the mine to close,'' says chairman Masayesva. ``We get a lot of benefits from the mine. But especially in a very dry area like this, water is about the most important thing there is.''