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When Coal Makes You Thirsty

Much is written about our oil addiction, but we are addicted to another fossil-drug — coal. And while oil steals the breath from our kids and incentivizes our bad behavior around the world, coal is the major contributor to global warming and one other surprising side-effect — thirst. The Hopi Indian tribe in Arizona has long relied on Peabody Coal for a large part of their income. Several decades ago they were tricked by their own lawyer (as described in the great Island Press book "Fire on the Plateau" by Charles Wilkinson) into selling water from their underground aquifers. As you can imagine, water in the Arizona desert is a precious commodity, especially when it is tens of thousands of years old and pristine, derived from ancient glaciers. Moreover, the Hopi were paid around $3 million a year for the water. Based on what we pay for natural spring water sold in bottles, that water was actually worth over $1 billion a year. The water, which Peabody assured everyone was a relatively small amount and would never harm the sustainability of the aquifer, was used to slurry coal (a process of dumping coal into a pipe full of water to flush it from one place to another) from a mine to a power plant, across 250 miles of desert. In fact, Peabody was draining the precious resource right out from under the Hopi people. Springs were running dry and experts estimated that the water would be gone in 30 years. Vernon Masayesva, a tribal elder, figured this out and started a battle to save the water and, in doing so, the life of his tribe. Peabody fought back, but ultimately this fossil-fueled "Goliath" lost to the persuasive wisdom of the community's "David". Vernon won temporary reprieves. But now the Bush Administration's Office of Surface Mining is trying again to help Peabody to steal water from the Hopi and move coal by manipulating the science around environmental reviews and permits. Corporations have a responsibility to their shareholders and the concept of making a profit. Those that convert natural resources to cash have a right to do that and, let's be honest, we all benefit from having wood to build homes or fuel to power our lives. But corporations don't have the right to use those resources in a way that diminishes their value to others — it's called the Public Trust Doctrine and is the bedrock of our environmental laws. Corporations also don't have the right to destroy a civilization that has lived in the same place, peacefully and sustainably, for tens of thousands of years. When this kind of outrage occurs, we have an obligation to speak up, especially because the Peabodys of the world claim they're doing these things for us — the consumer. They say consumers want cheap power, but never tell us the true price of switching on the lights. If you want to learn more, go to and get the details. Make a contribution. If enough of us do so, we can move to more sustainable sources of energy and make sure that we're not the next ones to go thirsty. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ———- Terry Tamminen is author of Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction. You can visit him at