ZUNI PUEBLO, N.M. — Gray dust spews from under the wheels of a pickup as two game wardens drive toward Zuni Salt Lake.
To the Zunis and other tribes, the lake is Salt Mother--a deity responsible for the steady flow of brine from an ancient volcanic cinder cone in the lake. For centuries, the Zunis, Navajos, Hopis, Acomas and other tribes have gathered salt for religious purposes.
Now those traditional practices are under threat.
An Arizona utility, the Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District, wants to dig a huge strip mine 12 miles from the lake. Its application for a mining permit has been pending before the U.S. Department of the Interior for more than a year.
The proposal to pump water for dust suppression at the proposed strip mine could dry up the lake, the Zunis say. Environmentalists warn this part of New Mexico could become an ever-expanding, coal-mining sacrifice zone to provide power for out-of-state customers.
This isn't just another battle that pits economic development and jobs against preserving the environment. It's a collision between Indian and non-Indian worlds.
Lake's Destruction Feared
Outside their truck, Zuni conservation officers Stanley Pinto and Keith Waatsa survey the area.
Waatsa says there will be no way to bring the salt lake back if the proposed strip mine hurts it.
"We don't know for sure if it will dry it up," Waatsa says. "But a lot of times, if they keep disturbing it, it might. And in our belief, it has religious significance."
"And the salt, you probably won't see it anymore," Pinto says. "A lot of Native Americans, I don't know what they would do. They wouldn't be able to do any of the things they need to do with the salt."
The utility wants to mine more than 80 million tons of coal from 18,000 acres of federal, state and private land in northern Catron and southern Cibola counties over the next 50 years. The company proposes to build 44 miles of rail to haul the coal from its proposed Fence Lake Mine to its electricity-generating station in St. John's, Ariz.
Zuni Gov. Malcolm Bowekaty says his people fear that the federal government will approve the mining plan despite questions about its likely effect on Zuni Salt Lake.
Bowekaty says the Zunis believe the salt lake is the body of Salt Mother and fear she will leave if the mining starts.
The Salt River Project has already secured federal and state leases for the coal, but its application for a mining permit has been pending before the Interior Department for more than a year.
The company proposes to pump an estimated 5,424 acre-feet of water, mostly for dust suppression. An acre-foot is about 325,000 gallons, which would cover an acre to a depth of a foot.
The proposed site lies entirely within a 182,000-acre "neutral zone," which the federal government has determined is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
Various hydrologists retained by the company or the Zunis have come up with different answers to the question of whether pumping ground water for mining would harm the lake.
Although the company's studies concluded that it would not, the pueblo's experts concluded that it might.
An environmental impact study prepared by the federal Office of Surface Mining recommended that the government approve the mining plan. Although the Zunis and others petitioned the office to declare the neutral zone unsuitable for mining because of its cultural significance, the agency declined to do so.
Jan V. Biella, deputy state historic preservation officer, says her office supported designating the salt lake and trails that lead to it as eligible for listing under the National Historic Preservation Act. That designation, which the federal government approved in July 1999, means federal agencies must minimize harm in the area, but doesn't necessarily prohibit mining.
The Office of Surface Mining's environmental study concluded that the effects of mining would be negligible. The office recommended that the Interior Department approve the Fence Lake Mine project.
The Zunis disagree.
"We have a strong belief that there's a strong hydrological connection between the proposed aquifer that the coal mine wants to tap into and the Zuni Salt Lake," Bowekaty says. "We definitely feel there's going to be a big impact. Salt River Project is willing to destroy a very unique feature. When we vent a lot of pressure that's forcing the water up, we will no longer have the salt."
The Office of Trust Responsibility in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs commissioned an independent hydrological report to examine the effect of the mining. It hired Phil King, an engineering professor at New Mexico State University.
King released a draft report critical of provisions that the Office of Surface Mining proposed to protect the lake. King says monitoring wells the agency proposed are in the wrong location and the geology between the lake and the mine should have been thoroughly investigated and mapped before observation wells were installed.