N.M. tribe challenges coal mine approval
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MONDAY, JUNE 4, 2002

The Department of Interior last week approved a coal strip mine in western New Mexico over the objections of a tribe which considers the project a major threat to a central part of its culture.

Department officials cited intense consultations sessions with the Zuni Tribe in clearing the final hurdle for the 17,000-acre operation. A number of conditions were imposed on the development as the result of ongoing talks with tribal leaders, they pointed out.

But the tribe and environmentalists vow to fight the project in court with the goal of halting any work near Zuni Salt Lake. Considered sacred by a number of tribes, the lake is located 12 miles away from the proposed mine, the subject of a dispute dating to the 1980s.

The tribe and its supporters fear Salt River Project, an Arizona company, will dry up the lake that plays a vital role in Zuni life. The company, however, believes it can supply energy to customers in Arizona and elsewhere without harming the area.

Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Rebecca L. Watson gave the department's nod based on competing, and often conflicting, priorities: its Indian trust responsibility and development of public lands. "These special provisions will protect sacred sites and water supplies while providing the coal needed for energy," she said in a department statement.

Specifically, the plan imposes six conditions on SRP, which plans to pump, over a 40-year-period, 1.5 billion gallons of water from local aquifers in order to transport 80 million tons of coal to a generating station in Arizona. The company has to monitor and report its water usage to the state of New Mexico, the Interior and the Zuni Tribe.

SRP isn't allowed to draw water from certain sources in the area, including one the tribe feels is the most vital to the survival of the lake. Studies commissioned by the department lent weight to the value of the Dakota aquifer, which the company must monitor throughout the project.

The company is to consult with tribes in order to ensure its employees respect the area. As for the Bureau of Land Management, the agency has to develop a plan to protect the lake and associated sites where burial grounds and ceremonial shrines are located.

The federal approval is only one angle the tribe and environmental groups are fighting. The state of New Mexico's agreement is being challenged in court.

SRP plans to use about 8,000 acres for extraction. The company believes as many as 160 jobs will be generated over the lifetime of the project.

Barring any lawsuits filed, the company plans to start operating in 2005.

Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles gave the high-level approval for the mine on May 15. Watson oversees the Office of Surface Mining (OSM), which has jurisdiction over mining and reclamation.

Relevant Links:
Zuni Sale Lake, Sacred Land Film Project -

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