Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Cretaceous Parks of the Colorado Plateau: the Black Mesa story


The leaf broke loose from the branch, and fluttered slowly to the forest floor, a forest alive with hoots, howls and whistles from the myriad animal species that dwelt there. In the distance the crashing surf of a wide sandy beach could be heard . The constant rain of leaves and twigs on the forest floor accumulated over the millenia, never quite decaying away because of the moist, swampy oxygen-poor conditions that retarded the activity of bacteria. The carbon-rich layer persisted as the region was covered first by a brief advance of the seashore, than by later forests and swamps, then seas again, and then the world changed. The seas disappeared forever, and the land started to rise. And rise. Eventually the layer containing the leaf was pushed thousands of feet upward, erosion ate away at the rocks, and the sediment was left as part of a vast mesa, covering some 4,000 square miles. After being buried in total darkness for unmeasured eons, something happened; there was the sound of hammering, the rock split open, reflecting sunlight for the first time in 70 million years, and there it was: a fossil in the hands of a geology student.

The huge bear-claw shaped plateau is called by the Navajo people Dziłíjiin, but is known to English-speakers as Black Mesa. The carbon-rich sediments, which are part of the Menefee Formation, are coal beds. And therein lies the source of generations worth of controversy and injustice. The coal is in seams that range from 3 to 18 feet thick, and the amounts are vast. At least one source I ran across suggests that 20 billion tons are present with a potential recovery value of at least 100 billion dollars. It is one of the largest coal deposits in the country.

The coal has been mined since the 1970's. Some of the coal is carried by rail to a huge coal-burning power plant at Page, Arizona, next to Lake Powell. The remainder was ground into pebble sized chunks, and was transported in a slurry mix for 273 miles to a coal-burning power plant on the Colorado River in Laughlin, Nevada. It took something like a billion gallons of water every year to move the coal, water that could come only from underground in this semiarid country. This plant closed in 2005, pending negotiations for a renewal of the mining terms. The company that mines the coal frankly swindled the Navajo and Hopi people. The negotiations ended up providing a fraction of the usual royalties paid to landowners, and the groundwater was sold at rates far less than any farmer would ever pay. One of the more shameful aspects of the whole sordid affair emerged years later when it was revealed the lawyer representing the Hopi people in their negotiations with the coal companies turned out to be on the payroll of the coal company.

The coal company is quick to note the wonderful benefits they provide to the Navajo and Hopi people. You can read their story here. By law, they must return the land to the original configuration, and they seem to be doing so. But the groundwater is not being replaced, and numerous springs on the mesa have already dried up. And the power plants are two of the biggest single sources of air pollution in the southwest.

Some things never seem to change. It appears that Black Mesa was one of the final environmental victims of the Bush administration. A controversial environmental impact statement (EIS) was approved by the federal Office of Surface Mining on December 22, 2008 that helps clear the way for the company to expand by nearly 19,000 acres (roughly 30 square miles), displacing more Navajo families, and continuing to use up scarce groundwater resources.

Black Mesa is not a park like many of the other sites I have been writing about for the last six months in my "short" history of the Colorado Plateau. It is instead the home of two nations of people, and an important part of their spiritual universe. Perhaps something more significant than a park...

"Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man."
John Prine, Paradise
Update (1/27): As usual, I was writing fast and made an error in the post; the formations of the Mesa Verde Group go by different names in different areas (I knew that, darn it). At Black Mesa, they are called the Toreva Formation, the Wepo Formation, and the Yale Point Sandstone. The coal is mined from the Wepo, not the Menefee, although the units are broadly correlated. Thank you to Stephen for the heads up, and for an additional point of view (see comments).