New look at coal mining after visit to reservation


There is no word for “relocation” in the Navajo language. But 12,000 Navajo have been forced to move off their traditional homelands ever since Congress passed Public Law 93-531 in 1974. The cause of this massive removal of Native Americans was coal and the vast wealth it can produce. About one-third of the coal in America lies under Native American reservations, and energy corporations, working within the capitalistic game for profit, are not always kind to everyone in pursuit of the mineral.

I traveled to the Navajo Reservation on an alternative spring break through Ecumenical Christian Ministries. I went intending to experience a different culture, and to witness its sustainable lifestyle. However, I found it impossible not to become politicized when I heard their stories of what Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, has done to the Navajo people.

The Reservation, centered in the Four Corners region of Arizona, offers a rugged, yet beautiful, landscape. The flat red land stretches almost endlessly with intermittent interruptions by awesome, black volcanic peaks and plateaus. The Navajo herd sheep daily through this landscape of tumbleweeds and desert grasses. But what was once a thriving community, with many head of horse, sheep and cattle, lively traditional ceremonies and amazing blanket weaving, now instead is a place that the National Academy of Science has termed a “national sacrifice area” in the interests of energy development.

In addition to relocation, the Navajo have experienced other ill effects of mineral extraction on their land. The Black Mesa coal mine is the only place in America that uses a coal slurry line to transport mined coal 273 miles out of Arizona and into Nevada. This slurry line has been using a billion gallons of water annually for the past 30 years, and has been draining water resources on which the native people greatly depend. This method of mining, strip-mining, literally strips the landscape down to the depth of coal. In addition, acid runoff from the mining operations contaminates nearby water sources, a scarce resource in this region. As Martin Sheen narrated in “Broken Rainbow,” the 1985 Academy Award winning documentary on the issue, “it is no longer possible to separate environmental issues from Native American survival.”

In this case, the destruction that Peabody Coal creates is simply a side effect of its efforts to increase profitability for its shareholders. It is often helped along by the tribal councils — which should not be confused with the native population — who seek personal gain through piggybacking off this giant corporation.

Unfortunately, Judith Niles, writing for Orion magazine, says that what is happening on the reservation is just one example of a global trend, a “syndrome in which transnational corporations take and exploit indigenous lands with the cooperation of host governments.” Are we choosing profit over people?

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