EPA pulls Black Mesa Mine permit

Coal-fired power has suffered another setback in the Four Corners. The Environmental Protection Agency recently withdrew a controversial permit from the massive Black Mesa Coal Complex, a mine operated by Peabody Coal Co. on Navajo Nation and Hopi lands in northeastern Arizona.

The decision came in response to an appeal brought by a diverse coalition of tribal and environmental groups. The appeal alleged that Black Mesa was discharging heavy metal and pollutants into washes and tributaries and polluting groundwater and drinking water. Brad Bartlett, of Durango’s Energy Minerals Law Center, argued the case.

“EPA is to be commended for doing the right thing in this instance and withdrawing the inadequate water permit for Black Mesa,” said Wahleah Johns, of the Black Mesa Water Coalition. “Our community was shut out of the permitting process and our requests for public hearings on the permit denied. If a new permit is issued, the agency must ensure that impacted communities are meaningfully involved in environmental decision-making.”

The coalition cited violations of the Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and Endangered Species Act at the mine. The appeal went on to charge that the EPA had failed to adequately analyze the environmental impacts of leaky waste ponds and failed to provide local residents with adequate opportunities for public participation.

The Black Mesa Mine has a history of controversy stemming from concerns about air and water pollution, impacts to local people, the drying of aquifers and springs, and air pollution.

For three and a half decades, Peabody’s coal-mining operations on Black Mesa have tapped the sole source of drinking water for the adjacent Navajo and Hopi communities. Between 1969 - 2005, Peabody pumped an average of 4,600 acre-feet of water annually from the Navajo Aquifer, causing significant damage to community water supplies.

“The indigenous peoples of Black Mesa know that water is life, and environmental justice has been served by EPA’s decision,” said Hertha Woody, a regional Sierra Club leader and member of the Navajo Nation. “No one should have to question the quality of their life-giving waters. It is good to know that more will be done by EPA to protect these waters in the future.”

On the flip side, environmental activists and organizations were recently blacklisted as the biggest threats to the Hopi and Navajo tribes. The Hopi Tribe passed a resolution on Sept. 28 barring conservationists from traveling on reservation lands, and Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. expressed his support. Challenges to the Black Mesa Mine were at the heart of the resolution.

The Hopi Council cited the closure of the Mohave Generating Station, which used coal exclusively from Black Mesa, as one example of an objectionable action by environmental groups. Located in Laughlin, Nev., the Mohave Generating Station was shuttered in 2005 following a lawsuit that alleged numerous air quality violations at the plant. This closure resulted in the loss of as much as $8.5 million in tribal revenues per year, according to the Hopi Council.

The Navajo Nation said there were parallels with opposition to the Desert Rock Power Plant and the Environmental Protection Agency’s repeal of the permit for the plant. Navajo President Shirley said he strongly supported the Hopi Tribe’s resolution to declare local and national environmental groups unwelcome on Hopi land.

“I stand with the Hopi Nation,” he said. “Unlike ever before, environmental activists and organizations are among the greatest threats to tribal sovereignty.”

Melodrama returns to the Strater

Melodrama will march back onto Main Avenue this summer. After a two-year hiatus, “The Great Durango Melodrama” will go back on stage at the Henry Strater Theatre.

Two different shows will be staged on alternate nights beginning in early June. The George M. Cohen classic “The Tavern” has been confirmed, with a second show to be announced soon.

“We thought long and hard about this,” said Rod Barker, owner of the Strater Hotel. “I can’t tell you how many people continue to call and ask if we still have the melodrama, and they’re disappointed when we say ‘No.’ Now we will be able to say, ‘Yes.’”

The Diamond Circle Melodrama was launched at the Strater’s theatre in 1961 by Earl Barker, Rod’s father. Over the years, it rose to international fame for its charm and adherence to the traditional theatrical art form. Melodramas are characterized by exaggerated movements, strong emotions, up-tempo dialogue, and clear conflict between good and evil.

“The Tavern” is set in a run-down Wisconsin inn on a dark and stormy night. Travelers take refuge in the ramshackle tavern, hoping to escape the rain and a band of highwaymen who’d been robbing and terrorizing people on the road. The play was also one of the Diamond Circle’s first productions.

 “The Diamond Circle Melodrama staged ‘The Tavern’ in 1961,” said Barker. “We thought it only appropriate to bring it back for the Melodrama’s rebirth.”

In 2007 Rod Barker’s sister, Jeannie Wheeldon, who assumed management and ownership of the Diamond Circle Melodrama in 1980, sought a buyer for the melodrama. Ultimately, the Durango Arts Center picked up the institution but only staged productions for the 2008 season. During the same period, the rechristened Henry Strater Theatre turned to light musical comedies, staging “Forever Plaid” in 2008, and “Dames at Sea” in 2009.

“While these were wonderful productions, we really wanted to get back to our unique niche,” said Barker. “We’ll continue with live music and as a venue for community events, but during the summer, it will be all about traditional melodrama.”

DOE boosts biofuels in Colorado

Biofuels will be stepping into Colorado in a big way in coming years. The U.S. Department of Energy recently funneled $23 million in recovery act funds to a Colorado biorefinery project.

Clearfuels Technology Inc., in Commerce City, will produce renewable diesel and jet fuel from woody biomass. The facility will also evaluate the conversion of biomass mixtures into fuels.

Dozens of other biomass projects throughout the country also received recovery act funds and up to $483 million will go to 18 biorefinery projects across the country. An additional $81 million will focus on accelerating the construction of biorefinery projects. Matched with more than $700 million in private funds, the total project investments will exceed $1.2 billion.

The hope is that the biofuels and bioproducts produced through will displace petroleum. The administration is using the funding as a way to accelerate the industry’s ability to achieve production targets mandated by the federal Renewable Fuel Standard.

– Will Sands




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