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Zuni sacred site saved from coal strip mine development in New Mexico

Fifty miles south of Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, there sits a shallow saline lake that is also the mother of the Zuni people. She is Ma’l Oyattsik’i, sometimes translated as “Old Lady Salt” or “Salt Woman.” The Zuni people consider this body of water a sacred being, and it is a revered site for other First Nations peoples, including neighboring Navajo and Apache tribes.

Today the Old Salt Mother is still a pilgrimage destination for several First Nations peoples. Their ancient trails traverse the land nearby, and indigenous men still make the journey to the lakeshore to pay Salt Mother respect in traditional religious ceremonies, ritually bathe themselves, and collect her sacred flesh. Salt from the lake is ceremonially harvested and used for religious rituals and cooking in the daily life of the Zuni people.

This sacred site has also been at the center of a decades-long battle over mineral and water rights. In 1986, the Salt River Project, one of the nation’s largest electrical companies, submitted a proposal for a new coal strip mine twelve miles from the lake. This proposal included plans for a railroad line that would intersect with several pilgrimage trails, documented graves, and other sacred sites nearby. The Salt River Project also planned to build new wells to pump water at the rate of 85 gallons per minute from underground aquifers near Zuni Salt Lake for use in settling coal dust. The aquifer and surrounding springs supply Zuni Salt Lake, and without this water source, some scientists and Zuni spokespeople claim the lake would dry up and the ecosystem would be irreparably damaged, obliterating the Old Salt Woman and the ceremonies surrounding her.

Due to the environmental and tribal impacts, environmentalists and Native American groups voiced concerns through NEPA’s commenting process. In response, BLM issued a hydrological study that determined Zuni Salt Lake would not be impacted by the mine, but the Zuni leadership commissioned their own study showing that the loss of water in the lake would be significant –- about four feet of the five-foot-deep lake. In the end, the utility company scrapped the Fence Lake Mine plans and decided to instead mine lower-sulfur coal from already-operating mines in Wyoming.

Because of NEPA, groups were able to voice concerns that resulted in the preservation of priceless Native American cultural and religious sites and prevented disruption to the local environment and habitat loss. Additionally, the utility saved money and minimized impacts by using an existing coal mine.

In a statement before a Congressional committee, Calbert Seciwa, a member of the Zuni tribe, stated that “[w]ithout NEPA, the membership of the [Zuni Salt Lake] Coalition, affected Tribal Governments, organizations and individuals, Native and Non Native, would have been largely powerless to play any productive role in the decision-making process regarding this area of sacred land.”

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