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An Energy Revolution on the Navajo Reservation

Posted: Dec 10, 2012

KAYENTA, Ariz. –When millions of residents in Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas and Los Angeles flip a light or turn on a faucet, they’re likely unaware of the connection to the Black Mesa coal mine, located on the Navajo Reservation.

It’s an exchange that has lit cities, irrigated surrounding farmland and, for the Navajo, brought with it a much-needed economic jolt. But growing environmental concerns now have many pushing for its end.

Increasingly, residents say they are being made sick by the haze emitting from the smokestacks atop the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), about two hours west of Kayenta in the town of Page. They blame the toxic cloud that blows across their land for a host of respiratory illnesses.

There are also concerns about the depletion of local aquifers. Families, and especially those in the more remote areas of this 27,425 square mile swath of land, rely on these waters to drink and grow crops. Many must have water trucked in to meet their needs.

Such concerns have led to the formation of a coalition between area residents around Black Mesa and grassroots organizations, including the Black Mesa Water Coalition (BMWC). National organizations such as the Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust, and Indigenous Environmental Network have also gotten involved.

With a growing call from those on the reservation for cleaner fuel sources like solar and wind, coalition members say now is the time to push for that transition. They and others are working toward the creation of an action plan for what many hope will be a sustainable future without Kayenta coal.

A Navajo-Latino Alliance

Navajo activists are hoping to find allies in Arizona’s rapidly expanding Hispanic population. According to the latest U.S. Census figures, Latinos make up more than 40 percent of residents in both Phoenix and Tucson.

Jihan Gearon is executive director with the Black Mesa Water Coalition. Her group is among those working to build ties with Latino-led environmental groups. “In December or January we have a mural project planned in Phoenix to draw attention to our situation,” she says.

Gearon explained the long-term strategy involves engaging the Latino community to use their growing political power to help achieve some major changes for the Navajo people. She notes that while immigration was a priority for Latino voters in 2012, Navajo concerns around clean energy and economic parity will soon become key issues for Latinos as well, both in Arizona and nationwide.

Tupac Enrique Acosta is a Chicano leader with Tonatierra Community Development Institute in Phoenix. He is also vice chair with the Seventh Generation Fund, a non-profit with a mission of investing in businesses that protect the environment.

Recalling when Navajos and others from the 16 tribes in Arizona marched with Latinos following the passage of English-only laws and SB 1070, which criminalized the state’s undocumented immigrants, Acosta said the next logical step would be to further expand political solidarity between the two groups.

“Electoral strategies have to be addressed in the same way as environmental and economic issues have been addressed by our coalitions – from the local to the regional. We are moving in that direction, but we haven’t achieved it yet.”

Sustainable, Clean Energy

The potential of generating clean energy from renewable resources presents tribes with an opportunity to create jobs as well as protect the natural and cultural resources on reservation lands.

According to a report from the National Tribal Environmental Council and Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, Southwest tribal lands have the potential to produce 17.6 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity annually from solar power, about 4.5 times the total amount of electricity generated in the United States in 2004.

Activists also want to transition the large profits earned by the Peabody Western Coal Co., one of the world’s biggest coal mining corporations, and Valley power companies such as Salt River Project (SRP) and Arizona Public Service (APS) into the hands of tribal entrepreneurs that will work with investors to build solar and wind energy-generating facilities on their vast lands.

In addition, the activists are introducing a new concept they call the “Just Transition Plan” to the Navajo tribal council and to residents in small town meetings in Navajo communities.

The Just Transition Plan focuses on the interests of Black Mesa community members instead of big corporations. The blueprint calls for the development of solar and wind energy facilities to replace coal-fueled power plants.

“Our goal is to not just shut down the coal mines,” says Wahleah Johns, the Black Mesa solar project coordinator for the BMWC as we drive in a van toward the Black Mesa coal mine on winding, washboard-rutted dirt roads. “We understand that there has to be a transition to something more sustainable.”

The elevations on the Navajo reservation range from 3,900 to 6,500 feet. The stark geography consists of multi-hued flats, buttes, and mesas inhabited by juniper and pines in the highest elevations.

Winds brisk enough to snatch baseball caps off heads sweep from the hills through the flat valleys, a constant reminder of the potential to harness wind-generated electricity from high towers with wind blades.

Johns said that the corporations pay millions of dollars in royalties to the Navajo tribal government to use the tribe’s natural resources. “The tribal government benefits, but it doesn’t get to the people. We want to create a new model of economic development for community members.”

She added that sites on Navajo lands are being evaluated for their future wind and solar energy potential. Lands on or near the coal mine that have been reconditioned after coal extractions into landfills topped with grass are ideal to erect solar panels to generate electricity. These landfills have paved roads leading to them, unlike many of the rutted dirt roads that crisscross the reservation. Johns claimed the reclaimed land is no good for grazing cattle and sheep because the animals get sick.

“We want to create a model where a solar developer partners with the people for solar panels, and the people earn money by selling the extra electricity they don’t use to the utilities,” she says.

This electricity from solar and wind generators can be sold to SRP and APS and sent to cities using existing transmission lines, she added.

“We have two communities ready to work with us,” Johns says. “Corporations like Peabody or SRP could be co-developers. Over time we would flip that investment to the people. Or the tribal government could invest.”

Members of the Black Mesa Water Coalition said they have had initial discussions with some solar and wind development companies, and with SRP.

However, the activist negotiations have not resulted in a model project yet, she says. Some reasons are that potential investors want to realize a reasonable return on their investments, environmental and preconstruction studies be done, and the numerous permits necessary must be obtained at different governmental levels.

The Navajo tribal government also is looking at developing alternative energy. The tribal legislative council has created a Navajo Green Economy Commission to promote environmentally friendly jobs and businesses.

Eighty miles west of Flagstaff, the Navajo Nation is developing the Big Boquillas Wind Project, with the construction of 48 turbines on towers.

The tribe also has weather-measuring towers in Cameron, and are considering other wind sites and possible solar-utility projects in the Four Corners area.

“We need to create our own businesses and control our destiny,” says Ben Shelly, the Navajo Nation president.

Tale of Colliding Values

Gearon and Johns said there is an important, non-economic imperative that drives their passion to end the coal mining and eventually close down the Navajo Generating Station.

As Native people with cultural values of deep love and spiritual connection to the land and Mother Earth, they need to get back to being stewards of the resources provided by the sun and wind, they say.

“The coal mining is like a knife cutting into the liver of our mother land,” says Johns. “The liver is what keeps the whole body healthy. The coal mining is why our people are getting sick.”

The stakes are high in the struggle between old and new energy sources, old and new economic development models, and the often colliding values of modern capitalism and Native American spiritual values and special relationship to their lands.

There’s also big money involved.

Mandates under the federal Clean Air Act that require reducing regional haze have prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to order the Navajo Generating Station to install more than $1 billion worth of pollution filtering devices or shut down. The NGS is operated by a group of regional utilities and by SRP.

The region could suffer a big economic hit as a result.

A National Renewable Energy Laboratory report found that in the past 23 years, the Peabody Coal Co. paid about $50 million annually to the Navajo and nearby Hopi tribes, totaling nearly $1.3 billion.

In 2010, the total tribal payments for coal royalties were $34.4 million and coal bonuses for the two tribes totaled $5 million.

The same report found that wages and benefits paid to the 400 Navajo employees was $52 million annually. The average NGS job pays about $35 per hour, twice the rate of other jobs in the county. On a reservation where unemployment runs more than 50 percent, these jobs are sorely needed, say tribal government and SRP officials.

Environmental activists counter that 400 jobs in a tribe with 174,000 members is insignificant.

A recent study by the William Seidman Research Institute at Arizona State University found that the power plant and mine would have a $20.5 billion impact on Arizona through 2044.

SRP States Its Position

Paul Ostapuk, SRP environmental manager of the NGS in Page, said that the three electricity generating units there send out power for millions people served by the utility companies in the plant consortium.

He said in the summer of 2011 Valley household and businesses used a record amount of electricity. These millions who consume the electricity from the generating plant wouldn’t like it if their power were reduced, he added.

“We are under certain threats that could shut down this plant prematurely,” Ostapuk says, referring to EPA pressure to install more pollution controls.

The NGS environmental manager said that SRP has invested in renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

However, Ostapuk says, “Keep in mind that solar and wind is more expensive and less cost efficient right now.”

He added that these two kinds of power generation also impact the land and reservation wildlife. Large amounts of land are needed for hundreds of solar panels and wind towers with whirling blades. Some reservation residents have already warned that the wind tower blades will kill birds that fly into them, he said.

In addition, he said the costs of investing in renewable energy would have to be passed on to SRP’s customers, something he didn’t think they would be too happy about.

As for activist claims that pollution from the plant and coal mine is making reservation residents sick, he replies, “We haven’t seen the data to support those claims.”

Navajos Determine Their Future

Marshall Johnson is a Navajo activist living with his wife and family in the Piñon community near the Black Mesa coal mine. Johnson said that the Navajo people need to benefit from the reservation’s natural resources more than corporations.

“How is it possible that we are a people with a rich culture and natural resources, yet millions of other people in Phoenix, Tucson and California benefit from our water and coal and we don’t?” he says. “We give them land and they turn it into contaminated land that is no good for grazing cattle or raising crops. We provide pure water and they return the water to us poisoned with chemicals. Our people living near these mines and plants get sick. How is this so? ”

There is probably no easy solution to the face-off between big corporations and environmentalists in Navajo land.

However, in Arizona, the great potential on tribal land to generate clean energy means that the tribe can take a big role in providing global warming solutions. It also has the opportunity to mark its own path to future energy independence.

Ruben Hernandez wrote this story under an environmental fellowship reporting program organized by New America Media and funded by the Mize Family Foundation to support coverage of environmental health in the Southwest.

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