For sixty years, the billions of tons of coal found beneath Arizona's Black Mesa have powered the cities of the Southwest. But getting at all that coal has meant the displacement of more than 12,000 people of the Navajo Nation, one of the largest removals of Native Americans since the 19th century. For those that have remained, the mining process has compromised their health and their environment.
The mesa rises up from the dry Arizona landscape a few miles south of Kayenta Township, where Peabody Energy operates a mine that in 2013 produced nearly eight million tons of coal. The company proposed in May 2012 to expand its excavation, a plan that needs approval from the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, and Enforcement (OSMRE). Locals are concerned because that would add 841 acres of land to the Kayenta Mine complex — which would displace even more Navajo and ensure continued air and water contamination for decades to come.
A VICE News crew traveled to the Black Mesa area to document the effects of coal mining on their health, the environment, and the local economy.
The conflict between the company and locals extends beyond health and environmental concerns, though. The Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has threatened many Navajo with arrest if their sheep graze on company-owned land, Marsha Monestersky of the grassroots Navajo organization Forgotten People told VICE News. As many as 200 families, she said, remain on land the company has eyed for expansion.
In October, the agency sent SWAT teams to detain Navajo elders for owning too many sheep. Many in the region believe the BIA is using concerns about overgrazing as an excuse to intimidate the Navajo into abandoning their land, leaving the way clear for Peabody Energy to expand.
The Navajo obtained in December a US Department of Justice moratorium on BIA efforts to terminate their permits to keep sheep and other grazing animals. The moratorium expires this month.
"We're not sure what's going to happen," Monestersky told VICE News. "We haven't heard anything at all. It's the uncertainty that really is traumatizing for the people."
The situation in Kayenta isn't the only conflict over coal in Navajo Nation. Across the border, in New Mexico, tribal authorities purchased the Navajo Mine, which powers the Four Corners Generation Station in Fruitland. But not everyone was on board with the purchase, which cost millions of dollars that some residents say could be used for better purposes.
"They shouldn't have done that," Joe Allen, a lifelong resident of the Fruitland area, told VICE News. "It's just more pollution."
Earlier this month, a US District Court judge in Colorado ruled against a planned 714-acre expansion of the Navajo Mine, calling OSMRE's analysis of environmental and health impacts of the expansion insufficient.
"We don't need the mine. The pollution, we don't need," Allen told VICE News. "Are they going to keep on going until they get the last bit of the coal?"
Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro