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Fate of Coal-Fueled Power Plant Sparks Controversy in Navajo Nation

Posted: Dec 12, 2012

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part two of a two part series on the environmental impact of Arizona's Navajo Generating Station on the health of local tribes.  Part one can be read

KAYENTA, Ariz. — The Navajo Nation is a sprawling expanse of massive mesas and open desert that sits within the Four Sacred Mountains: the San Francisco Peaks to the west, Mount Hesperus to north, Mount Blanca in the east and Mount Taylor in the south.

Navajo traditions do not tell of any migration across the Bering Strait into the Americas. Rather, the Navajo believe they simply emerged from the womb of this sacred perimeter.

For Navajo like Jihan Gearon, traditions like these speak to the uniqueness of her tribe’s culture and the reverence owed to its land. Gearon, executive director of the environmental group Black Mesa Water Coalition, believes both continue to be threatened by the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), a 2,250-megawatt coal-fired power plant that has been operating in Page since 1969.

NGS provides 95 percent of the electricity needed to pump water through the Central Arizona Project, in addition to electricity to parts of Arizona, California and Nevada. Gila River’s water rights won under the Arizona Water Settlement Act depends on the energy from NGS as well. NGS’s lease expires in 2019, with an option to renew for 25 more years.

The power facility is at the heart of a multi-sided controversy made more complex by the impending Environmental Protection Agency’s stricter emissions standards, a ruling that is expected by early 2013 (how soon NGS would have to implement those tighter standards is unclear). NGS operators say updating the emission controls would cost $1.1 billion, a price tag that threatens to either close down the plant or drive up energy costs.

Gearon and the Black Mesa Water Coalition want to see a transition away from fossil fuel-based energy sources to renewables, like solar and wind. To Gearon, NGS is not just an unsustainable energy source. It also represents an inequity of resources, abuse of Navajo land and perversion of their culture.

“One of the worst things I could possibly imagine is that Navajo people will just be the same as everybody else one day — no language, no culture, very focused on money,” Gearon said. She added: “When all of your focus is put into how much money you can make by destroying Black Mesa, we’re just ripping up our own cultural way of life.”

NGS is within all current EPA guidelines in terms of what it releases into the environment. But sulfur dioxide emissions contribute to a haze over the Grand Canyon region. Reducing that haze is the aim of the upcoming EPA ruling.

For Gearon and her associates, reducing inequity within the Navajo Nation is also a primary concern. The reservation, which also includes the Hopi reservation, is more than 24,000 square miles. Much of it lacks basic infrastructure like roads and many homes located in the most desolate regions lack electricity and running water — all while NGS, a plant that powers 3 million homes, sits in Navajo territory.

Marshall Johnson, who works with Gearon, said school buses on the Navajo reservation travel 2,200 miles a day, with 1,900 miles coming over rocky, unpaved roads. Meanwhile, Phoenix has 1,500 miles of freeways.

“We employ Gov. Brewer, we employ all the legislators,” Johnson said. “We do that, we provide that power and energy so they can live comfortably like this.”

The Navajo government in Window Rock, Ariz., does receive revenue from leasing NGS and for right-of-way payments for transporting coal from the mine in Kayenta that feeds it. The power produced at NGS, however, was always intended for outside use.

“The charter of this plant was never to power the reservation,” said Paul Ostupak, an environmental and safety manager who has been with NGS since 1985. “Money flows to Window Rock and they can use that money however they see fit.

“I think there was some false expectations that the power plant was going to run electric lines to the reservation, but that was never in writing or talked about really.”

NGS says it benefits the Navajo community by creating jobs. Of the 540 employees at the power station, 85 percent are Navajo. The Kayenta mine, also using a Native American hiring preference, has similar statistics. Johnson estimates that royalties from NGS and other power plants and leases employs roughly 10,000 Navajo people.

“But there are 290,000 more [of us]. How do we get by?” Johnson asked.

The battle between jobs and environment can sometimes play out within a single family. Simon Crank, 81, lives a few miles from the Kayenta mine where he worked for 36 years and where his two sons currently work. Crank said he has respiration problems caused by years of open-pit mining.

“You look into this valley, you will see a cloud of smoke that you cannot see through and dust you cannot see through,” Crank, speaking in his native Dine tongue, said through a translator. “We live in this on a daily basis.”

Crank said his compensation was abruptly cut off from Peabody, the company that runs the mine. As he considers the environmental impacts of mining and the personal wrongs he has suffered, he also must be mindful of his sons’ livelihood. What if NGS closed and the mine with it, and his sons lost their jobs?

“I would be worried,” Crank said.

There is no simple solution to NGS. The Navajo Nation, Arizona, the federal government and anyone who gets cheap electricity all are affected by its operation. The battle over the plant’s future is only beginning.

But Crank, like Gearon, wants people to see through the dollar signs.

“There are two things: there is life and there is money,” Crank said. “I feel very strongly for life [more] than money. I hold life dearly.”

The story was written 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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