Tsé Alnaozt’i’í Chapter member Victoria Gutierrez, left, and Tiis Tsoh Sikaad Chapter member Sarah White stand near a billboard addressing the
Tsé Alnaozt'i'í Chapter member Victoria Gutierrez, left, and Tiis Tsoh Sikaad Chapter member Sarah White stand near a billboard addressing the sale of Navajo Mine on Tuesday along U.S. Highway 64 east of Hogback. Gutierrez and White, along with volunteers, have spent weeks working on the billboard. (Megan Farmer / The Daily Times)
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Hogback — A new billboard in Hogback is calling attention to an advocacy group's opinion about the Navajo Mine purchase.

The billboard — which encourages people to "Speak up!" — lists that the Navajo Nation Council is spending $85 million to purchase the Navajo Mine from BHP Billiton, $3 million to complete due diligence reports and $4.1 million for the Navajo Transitional Energy Company.

On the bottom of the billboard are the words, "'Waiving liabilities' means keeping your mouth shut forever about damages caused by BHP."

BHP Billiton completed the sale of Navajo Mine to the Navajo Transitional Energy Company on Dec. 30. Before the sale was finalized, the tribe approved waiving all past, present and future liabilities for BHP Billiton.

The billboard was a collaborative effort among Diné CARE, Honor the Treaties and concerned community members.

After a month of design and planning, it was put up Monday on the right side of the westbound lane of U.S. Highway 64 on a piece of private property that was donated to Diné CARE.

Tiis Tsoh Sikaad Chapter member Sarah White and Tsé Alnaozt'i'í Chapter member Victoria Gutierrez talked about the billboard Tuesday. They declined to disclose its cost and to give the name of the land owner.

White said the billboard informs the public about how the tribe spent the Navajo people's money and the "behind closed doors" dealings to acquire the mine.

"We put up this billboard to tell a story, a story about how we got cheated of so many millions of dollars," she said. "It tells the story of how BHP is a billion dollar company had taken advantage of us, the Navajo people and our leaders, and how that happened."

Gutierrez said the group has spoken at chapter meetings, gone door to door, issued press releases and used the Internet to share its message.

"We're doing every avenue we can do to reach the people," Gutierrez said.

Also on the billboard are black and white images of Navajo Nation Council Speaker Johnny Naize, council delegate LoRenzo Bates, the Four Corners Power Plant and a dragline from Navajo Mine, along with gray dollar signs floating above the power plant.

White and Gutierrez explained Bates was included on the billboard because he represents six chapters — some that are affected by mining activity — and he never asked those chapter members if they wanted public hearings to learn about the mine purchase.

Gutierrez highlighted that Bates does not speak Navajo, so a lot of the elderly members could not understand the situation.

As for Naize's image, White said he was included because he is the speaker, and, despite facing criminal bribery charges, he remains in power.

"He is under indictment, and he is still making the laws, and he is still approving this and that. That is not right," she said, adding that elected leaders should go on administrative leave until such allegations and investigations are completed.

White said the billboard is not a personal attack on the men but on the context of their actions.

"All of this is because of what's going on. I do not like what they are doing," she said.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Naize said when the council took office, they took steps to be more transparent. He said one way they did that was implementing the five-day comment period, which allows the public's written comments to be passed along to delegates.

"I respect the opinions of the public; however, I believe a more effective way of voicing public opinion is to utilize the 5-day comment process, which ensures that their voices are heard by their leaders," Naize said in prepared remarks.

Bates said he was transparent about the mine purchase. He said mine purchase legislation went through the council's standing committee process. He said he presented to each chapter the "purpose and intent" of the transaction and there were no issues from the chapters.

"It's a good picture, I can give them that," said Bates of the photo the group used of him.

BHP Billiton New Mexico Coal representatives are aware of the billboard, according to a statement from BHP Billiton.

In the press release, the organization clarified the mine purchase price was not funded by the tribe's general fund or by the Permanent Trust Fund as the billboard suggests. The statement also adds that BHP Billiton will continue to be subject to certain federal laws with respect to liabilities.

Pat Risner, New Mexico Coal Division Asset President for BHP Billiton, said the mine purchase was completed by seller financing, with BHP Billiton providing an $85 million loan to Navajo Transitional Energy Company. He said it would be paid back by cash flow generated by coal sales from the mine to the Four Corners Power Plant over the next three years.

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 on Twitter @nsmithdt on Twitter.