Miners: BHP mine a good deal for tribe
By Noel Lyn Smith
NENAHNEZAD, N.M., April 9, 2013
(Times photo – Donovan Quintero)
The intricate work Begay completes with the dragline can be described as a dance between the large machinery and the layers of Earth it scoops in search of coal. Each of the mine's three draglines is operated by electricity from the Four Corners Power Plant, which is powered by the coal mined here.
Locating that coal is the heart of this 24-hour, seven-day operation.
Begay, of Upper Fruitland, N.M., has been a dragline operator for more than 20 years. He is also a second-generation mineworker.
Although the Navajo Nation has not agreed to purchase the mine from its parent company, BHP Billiton Energy Coal, Begay continues to keep tabs on the discussion.
There are many individuals who do not understand, he said, but he thinks that the tribe can profit and benefit from owning the operation.
Navajo Mine is located in the tribe's Northern Agency. It is bordered by the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry to the west and is located in the Nenahnezad, San Juan, T'iistoh Sikaad and Upper Fruitland chapters.
Wildlife found at the mine include deer, elk, snakes, reptiles, prairie dogs, bobcats, rabbits, coyotes and antelopes.
At the Lowe stockpile, where Load Operator Mary Lister was loading about 30 tons of coal into one of the 20 coal carts, a crow's nest was visible on top of a utility pole.
There are two electric trains that operate on 14 miles of track between the mine and the 2,040-megawatt power plant.
Each of the stockpiles represents a different grade of coal and what Lister was loading May 3, when the Navajo Times visited the mine, was high-grade coal, said Norman Benally, media contact for BHP Billiton New Mexico Coal.
BHP New Mexico Coal is comprised of the BHP Navajo Coal Co. and the San Juan Coal Co. BHP Navajo Coal Co. operates Navajo Mine, which is an open cut mine.
Lister started her career as a secretary, then worked her way to becoming a load operator, Benally explained.
She was also one of approximately 40 employees who attended the April 29 special session of the Navajo Nation Council when delegates approved creating an energy company to oversee the tribe's possible purchase, ownership and operation of Navajo Mine.
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly concurred with the Council's action by signing the legislation into law April 30.
"In the way of grade, our coal isn't really that good for burning at the houses but there are pockets that we are able to mine out to use," Benally said.
Emerson Lee has been an electrician for 33 years at the mine and is also a second-generation mineworker.
Lee, originally from Shiprock, mostly works on loaders and radios but has experience with draglines, substations, high voltage lines, and power cables that can carry up to 7,000 volts.
He also trains new employees in the journeyman electrician apprenticeship program offered by BHP Billiton.
Some of the training that apprentices receive takes place in a simulator located at the front office grounds.
It is not easy predicting the future, Lee said.
The original Navajo Mine coal lease was granted in 1957 and the current mining operation began in 1963.
Since its start the mine has been progressing from west to east.
"Navajo Mine is the foundation of New Mexico coal, it is the largest and oldest coal mine in this area," Benally said.
There is approximately $650 million worth of coal reserves and about 8 to 8.5 million tons is mined each year, he said.
The mine is on 30,000 acres and 13,000 acres has been disturbed with 8,000 acres reclaimed, according to environmental engineers at the mine.
"Should they move forward with the coal sale agreement to go to the end of 2031, they have more coal than they know what to do with," Benally said.
BHP Billiton's coal sale agreement with Arizona Public Service Co., which operates the Four Corners Power Plant, will expire in 2016.
Benally said negotiations between the two entities started two years ago but were unsuccessful.
"We could not agree with APS, APS could not agree with us," he said. "For us it was because we need to make upgrades to our infrastructure and for APS it's because of the pollution devices they have to put on their units. Their prices increased and our prices increased so that gap existed."
Last year, BHP Billiton approached the tribe with the purchase proposal.
If the tribe moves forward with the purchase, BHP Billiton would continue to operate the mine until 2016.
"The reason we're going to be here is because we want a smooth transition," he said. "So whoever the Nation hires as the contract miner, we can have a good overlapping hand off."
Because BHP Billiton is leaving in three years, that transition is being examined by the newly created Separation Department.
"Our driver is, how do we sustain Navajo Mine?" Benally said.