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Company drops development near sacred lake
Tuesday, June 1, 2004

After gaining state and federal approval to move forward with the controversial project, a utility company has dropped plans to develop a mine near a sacred lake in New Mexico.

Salt River Project of Arizona announced yesterday that its board of directors voted to look for other sources of coal. "As a result, SRP will not develop the Fence Lake Coal Mine in western New Mexico," the company said in a statement.

The utility's decision caps off years of debate over the fate of Zuni Salt Lake. Several tribes, led by Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico, vigorously fought the proposed mine, fearing it would damage the lake, destroy burial sites and disrupt religious pilgrimages.

"It's a tremendous victory for all Indian tribes concerned with sacred sites issues," Zuni council member Dan Simplicio told The Santa Fe New Mexican in a story published today. "It's been a tremendous and costly battle, and I'm glad it's over."

SRP sought to create a mine on 18,000 acres of public and private land just miles away from the lake. The company would have transported coal via a 44-mile rail line to a power plant across the border in Arizona.

Earlier this year, the Department of Interior gave its nod to the development but imposed several conditions, which SRP said it was meeting. The company was barred from pumping water from an aquifer that feeds the lake and was to conduct tests to ensure that other groundwater sources weren't harmed.

The limitations didn't deter Zuni Pueblo from lobbying to protect the lake, a central part of tribal religion. The tribe enlisted the support of several tribes in New Mexico and Arizona, and brought on board environmental and conservation groups, including the influential National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In May, the National Trust placed Zuni Salt Lake on its list of most endangered places, citing harm to the water sources. Just last month, a continent of New Mexico's Congressional delegation urged the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management to halt work on the mine pending additional studies the tribe said would show how the water sources were being impacted.

The letter drew criticism from Pat Lyons, the state's commissioner of public lands, who predicted a huge economic loss if the development was stopped. He cited $29 million in royalties the state would have received and the company's expected $16 million annual payroll.

Tribal leaders and members in turn blasted Lyons for putting what they called a monetary value on a sacred site. In a response letter, Zuni Gov. Arlen P. Quetawki said Lyons displayed an "eagerness to subordinate Native American religious rights to the promise of a few jobs and a few dollars." Lyons later said his comments were misunderstood.

From the National Trust for Historic Preservation Most Endangered List:
Zuni Salt Lake and Sanctuary Zone (May 2003)

Relevant Links:
Zuni Salt Lake Coalition -
Salt River Project -
New Mexico Mining and Mineral Division -
New Mexico State Land Office -

Related Stories:
Zuni Pueblo gaining allies in mine battle (7/28)
Campaign to protect sacred lake in N.M. ramps up (07/02)
Zuni Pueblo seeking to rebury remains (06/26)
List highlights threats to sacred and historic sites (05/30)
Zuni Pueblo continues fight against mine (05/16)
BIA hydrologist to investigate mine near sacred lake (04/28)
Zuni Pueblo pushes Norton to reject mine (02/14)
Zuni Pueblo takes mine fight on the road (07/17)
N.M. tribe challenges coal mine approval (6/3)
Zuni Pueblo waits on mine (5/3)
Zuni Pueblo teams up to fight mine (12/3)
Mine near N.M. sacred lake supported (11/14)
No decision made on Zuni mine (10/25)
Group: Norton to approve Zuni mine (10/24)
Bingaman writes Norton about mining near Zuni lake (10/4)
Mine near sacred lake raises concern (9/18)
Zuni Pueblo fighting mine approval (8/29)
Mine developer hopes for approval (6/26)
Pueblo promises lawsuit against mine (6/25)
Mine near sacred lake debated (6/22)
Zuni Pueblo battling coal mine (6/11)

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