In 1957, the Utah Construction Co. leased lands on the Navajo Nation to mine coal, and the Navajo Mine was begun.
The mine always has been, and continues to be, the only coal supplier to the Four Corners Power Plant, and the plant always has been the mine’s only buyer. BHP bought Utah Construction in 1984. BHP (now BHP/Billiton), based in Australia, is the world’s largest mining conglomerate.
BHP claims to be a responsible member of the San Juan County, N.M., community. BHP’s charter, which it claims is “the single most important means by which we communicate who we are, what we do and what we stand for,” says it values: “being environmentally responsible and supporting our communities,” “doing what is right” and “accepting responsibility and delivering on our commitments.” (www.bhpbilliton.com/home/aboutus/ourcompany/Pages/Charter.aspx)
Despite 50 years of profit, BHP is jumping ship just when the real costs of its operations are beginning to become clear. Late in 2012, BHP announced its plan to either close the mine at the end of the current contract with the power plant in 2016, or sell it to the Navajo Nation. The power plant is planning on closing the three oldest and smallest units, reducing coal use by almost one-quarter. This, says BHP, would not allow the company to make enough money. Keeping the mine would not cost the company, it already has the equipment, a good workforce and the infrastructure. It just wouldn’t earn enough.
For 50 years, the Navajo Mine and the power plant have operated with only the slightest public input or oversight. That is changing now because of the efforts of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, Diné CARE and other organizations. The first comprehensive and public review of the complex – an environmental impact statement – is underway by the Office of Surface Mining. The analysis will include the legacies of coal-ash burial in old mine pits, from where the ash can easily leach mercury, selenium and other toxins into the San Juan River. This alone could cost many millions of dollars to remedy.
It’s time for BHP to show how it accepts responsibility and supports the community, but, no, it’s adios.
Unfortunately, BHP has an ally in this cut and run – the federal government.
Ever hear of an incredibly quick and responsive federal agency? On May 3, BHP submitted an application to transfer the mine permit to the newly formed Navajo Transitional Energy Co. By May 17, just 14 days later, OSM had hired a contractor, identified issues that needed to be considered and finalized an environmental assessment. Extremely commendable!
The assessment was not released to the public, but hidden away on the OSM website. Of course, it was discovered and found to be a cut-and-paste sham. I guess in 14 days you only get the appearance of effectiveness.
BHP also argues (www.sanjuancitizens.org/air-quality/coal.php) that the transfer of the Bureau of Indian Affairs permit for the mine – a transfer from an Australian multi-national to a company wholly owned by the Navajo Nation – can be done through a corporate shell game, and thus not really be a transfer at all. Like magic! Through a series of four name changes, mergers and other shenanigans, it is as if the Navajo Nation and BHP are just parts of the same basic ownership. No need to allow any public oversight, no need to ensure the transfer meets BIA’s obligations to ensure it is in the Navajo Nation’s interests.
This is not just another story of corporate malfeasance and government being a willing partner to it. The ability of the public, whether Navajo or otherwise, to understand, comment on and challenge these decisions is not only the law, it is also part and parcel of what supposedly distinguishes a democracy from an authoritarian government.
The Navajo people could be left with a worthless mine, if the power plant shuts down. It would be left with untold millions of dollars of liabilities that BHP is responsible for creating. This could mean the toxic legacy BHP has created is left unresolved – to the continued degradation of the San Juan River.
Both BHP and OSM know better. They should step up and demonstrate the care and responsibility they profess.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.