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FRUITLAND — Local residents say the hogback west of Navajo Mine was placed there by the Holy People to protect the area from the Ute Mountain.

That is according to Norman Benally, spokesman for BHP Billiton New Mexico Coal, which operates the mine. Benally explained the history behind one of the landmarks surrounding the property during a tour of Navajo Mine on Wednesday.

As the Navajo Nation continues mulling over purchasing the mine, mining operations are continuing at the 34,000-acre mine, which is located in the chapter lands of Nenahnezad, San Juan, Tíistoh Sikaad and Upper Fruitland.

Last October, the Navajo Nation started investigating purchasing the mine after it was approached by its parent company, BHP Billiton Energy Coal.

Navajo Mine has existed on the Navajo reservation since the Utah Construction and Mining Co. started strip mining operations to supply coal to units 1, 2 and 3 of the Four Corners Power Plant in 1963.

Three years later, an agreement was signed to allow the mine to supply coal to units 4 and 5 of the power plant.

This year, an estimated 7 million tons of coal will be sold to Arizona Public Service Co. to operate the power plant. That coal production number could drop by 30 percent after units 1, 2 and 3 cease operation, Benally said.

The current coal supply agreement expires in 2016. Production could continue if the tribe purchases the mine and has it operated by the Navajo Transitional Energy Co., in addition to securing a new coal supply agreement.

Future production also hinges on APS purchasing Southern California Edison's share of units 4 and 5 of the power plant.

Right now, three draglines are operating 24 hours, seven days a week in the Dixon and Gilmore pits, located south of the building that houses engineering and operations personnel.

Each pit and stockpile is named after a local family, and they are marked by green signs posted along the roads that crisscross the property. Pits can be as deep as 270 feet, but, on average, they have a depth of 160 feet.

Coal haulers can carry at least 240 tons of coal to the Lowe stockpile, where it is transported 11.7 miles by an electric train to the Four Corners Power Plant. Water is pumped by large pipes from Morgan Lake to the mine and then used for dust control and irrigation. It is common to see water trucks, which can haul between 16,000 to 30,000 gallons, wetting the dirt roads.

As the mine advances southward, reclamation is taking place in the northern areas. The land is regraded, and a layer of top soil is added, along with a mixture of native seeds, before it is watered for at least two years.

A front end loader dumps coal into a hauler on Wednesday at the Navajo Mine in Fruitland.
A front end loader dumps coal into a hauler on Wednesday at the Navajo Mine in Fruitland. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

Navajo Mine is also using geomorphology, which incorporates recreating the land to what it looked like before mining activity while keeping top soil eroding before vegetation grows. This method was used at the La Plata Mine, and it received a national award from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation.

"The land is designed to be grazing land when BHP leaves," said Ken Logan, an analyst and assistant to the general manager.

According to Benally, the mine is the largest private employer in San Juan County, and 63 percent of its employees are Native American.

There is more to BHP Billiton New Mexico Coal than the mining operation. It also offers a community investment fund, which has allocated $390,000 for local nonprofits this fiscal year.

In addition to that, the coal company has also awarded $70,000 in scholarships and $20,000 in scholarships to Navajo students from local chapters and District 13.

A unique entity to the mine facility is the ceremonial hogan, which has housed Blessing Way, protection, coming-of-age and Native American Church ceremonies, as well as family gatherings, Navajo weddings and graduation dinners, Benally said.

"It's about giving back to Mother Earth in the way of traditional offerings," he said. "Mother Earth allows us to gain substances. In return, according to Navajo philosophy, we go back with prayers and offerings."

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.