The Navajo Nation Council approved $2.3 million in additional funding last week toward evaluating the potential deal with BHP Billiton, an Australia-based mining company. The funding legislation is currently awaiting Nation President Ben Shelly's signature. The tribe previously spent $750,000 to study the proposed purchase.
Although tribal government, and company officials continue to express enthusiasm about exploring the deal, a Diné environmental advocacy group remains skeptical. Diné C.A.R.E., a community-based environmental advocacy group founded in 1988 with offices in Durango, Colo. and Winslow, Ariz., has questioned the wisdom of purchasing a mine with environmental problems.
But some Navajo officials say the loss of jobs and revenue could be disastrous.
"With Navajo Mine ... the jobs and the revenue, those are some of the more key issues," Erny Zah, communications director for the Navajo Nation office of the president and vice president, said Monday. "We're talking 380-plus jobs, plus they're well-paying jobs."
The revenue from the mine will help provide services to the Navajo Nation's citizens, he said.
"It's really a Catch-22," Zah said. "We have one of the largest deposits of coal in the country and at this point, we need to fund direct services to our people. We can then provide services that aren't federally funded.
Jobs, it seems, are the priority for the present and near-future, and green energy will not provide as much employment, he said.
The economic consequences of losing the jobs and revenue could be devastating to the Navajo Nation and to its citizens.
"We would take a huge hit, and it (would) trickle down," he said. "That's really difficult in this climate of sequestration (automatic federal budget cuts that went into effect last month). We're already looking at a dwindling budget. There's only a handful of tribes that have coal on their land. We have a ton of natural resources underneath us."
Overall, the tribal government's leadership hopes to create a balanced energy portfolio incorporating clean coal technology, natural gas and possibly some renewable energy sources, Zah said.
"They did say the mine would be sold as is," said Lori Goodman, of Diné C.A.R.E. "What's going to happen to that 100 million tons of coal ash? For people that have been reading up on this, there are a lot of unknowns. Who's going to be responsible?"
Company officials say that the coal ash is a non-issue.
"All coal combustion byproducts ... placed in the mine were in accordance with approvals from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and the Navajo Nation," said Norman Benally, a company spokesperson, in an email Monday.
Studies of the byproducts, such as coal ash, by the mining office show a minimal impact in areas adjacent to disposal sites, the release said.
"BHP Billiton does not believe there are any legacy issues at Navajo Mine," the release said.
For Goodman and her associates, the pending deal remains suspicious. The results of an ongoing federal environmental impact study could only bring more risks and liabilities to light, she said.
"BHP has said that Navajo Mine no longer meets its portfolio requirements," she said. "We won't know all the risks until the (study) is completed."
Company officials say that they've kept the tribal government's leadership up to date.
"BHP Billiton has provided significant volumes of data and information about all aspects of Navajo Mine to the Navajo Nation's Due Diligence team to enable an informed decision," the release said. "BHP Billiton continues to engage Council Delegates in an effort to provide background on the transaction and to answer any questions they may have."