Few regions have as much at stake in the national transition away from coal mining and coal-based electricity production than the Navajo Nation. The tribe receives royalties from one of America’s largest coal plants, the 2250 Megawatt capacity Navajo Generating Station (NGS). The Navajo Nation also earns income from coal mines on reservation lands from its Kayenta Mine, operated by Peabody Energy. All coal mined at Kayenta is burned at NGS.
NGS owners (a consortium of the Salt River Project, Arizona Public Service Company, NV Energy and Tucson Electric Power) voted in February to close the plant. Both the plant and coal mine are expected to terminate operations some time between now and 2019. The decision marks a turning point for the rural communities in Northern Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, where the Navajo Nation is located.
Navajo President Russell Begaye is looking to President Trump and his commitment to double down on coal production. Begaye hopes to find a buyer for the facility that would keep the plant running. Begaye, along with leaders from the Hopi Tribe who also have a stake in NGS, met with the Trump Administration on April 12, to press their case.
“It is the position of the Navajo Nation that our goal is to keep the NGS open through 2030. There are over 3,100 direct and indirect jobs that are affected by the NGS and Kayenta Mine with over $180 million dollars in annualized wages. In addition, an ASU (Arizona State University) study stated that NGS provides an economic impact to the region of over $230 million. A closure would be a devastating impact to Arizona,” Begaye stated.
“We understand we are in challenging times where natural gas is impacting the numbers and ongoing operations for all coalpowered power plants. The four corners region will be severely impacted by the closure,” said President Begaye. “We are asking the Industry, should they close, to assist employees in finding other jobs.”
Other Navajo people, though, feel that the tribe’s commitment to coal dependence is a mistake. “I don’t know who the tribal leaders are listening to. For too long, our leadership have failed us. They’ve been too interested in the short-term, and it’s hurting our communities,” says Navajo cattle rancher Percy Deal.
“If NGS and the mine have been so great for our people, why are so many without electricity in their homes? Why are thousands of our people living in homes without running water,” asks Deal. “President Begaye, and others on the council, all they think about is the coal.”
Tribal demographic statistics do paint a stark picture. Of the 180,000 people living on the tribe’s reservation lands, 43% are at or below the poverty level. An estimated 32 percent of all homes lack electricity, while 31 percent lack plumbing, 38 percent lack water services, 86 percent lack natural gas and 60 percent lack telephone services.
“Before the fossil fuel industry came to our Nation, we were not an impoverished people. All they have done is taken from us, and they’ve given very little in return,” says Jihan Gearon of the Black Mesa Water Coalition. “Yes, NGS and the mine have provided some jobs, but coal dependence has broken up our communities. It has limited our potential.”
Gearon’s organization is working to diversify the Navajo economy, hoping that a commitment to small business development, clean energy sources and a focus on meeting local needs can lead to a better future. “Small businesses are part of the answer. Putting people to work, not just at NGS and at the mine. Growing food again, strengthening our interdependence. This is a deeper issue about who we want to be as a people.”
NGS has a broader impact on the people and ecology of the region. Along with any economic return, coal production has had deleterious effects, according to an article in High County News. These include increased rates of respiratory and pulminary disease, piles of toxic ash and tailings, cases of black lung among miners, polluted streams and rivers, and wildlife disruptions.
Most importantly, in this region of little rainfall, is the NGS’s role in Arizona’s water infrastructure. The plant’s history, according to ProPublica’s 2015 investigation, is based around the need for power to drive water further south to Arizona’s metropolitan areas. NGS’s site in Page, Arizona, is near Lake Powell, a reservoir in the Colorado River. Since the late 1960s, much of the electricity generated by the plant has gone to pumps that move 1.5 million acre-feet of water annually through the Central Arizona Project.
Part of the calculus of shuttering NGS is cheaper sources of power, from natural gas and renewable sources, to power the aqueduct’s pumps.
Water resources are also used by Peabody at the Kayenta Mine, where the coal company pumps water from an underground aquifer to support coal production.
NGS critics within the Navajo Nation say that restoring their people’s water is essential to any long-term solution. “That is our water. We are opposed to any actions that continue the theft of the water from our lands. We demand our water,” says Percy Deal.
He describes how water resources have become more scarce in his 69 years, watching as natural springs and wells go dry. “The ancestors, they tell us that the plants and animals that used to be here, they’re all gone. There’s no water now.”
Black Mesa Water Coalition’s Gearon says now is the time for the Navajo Nation to embrace the transition to local economic development and local water protections. “The current setup of the economy is there to take away our energy, our water. Those resources are gone, and we have to find a new way forward that strengthens our community.”
The Navajo leadership says it has explored the development of renewable energy resources on tribal lands, but maintains that they have yet to find solutions from solar or wind that could replace NGS’ production. They have invested in pilot projects with solar power. Navajo Nation leaders also point to investments they have made to develop business opportunities in their communities, such as the capitalization of a loan fund to help with economic development.
Gearon says that tribal leadership’s efforts are too limited. “I’ve talked with President Begaye, and I have to say I’m disappointed at his lack of vision. I’m not sure who he’s talking to about developing solar and wind resources. There’s money there, companies developing solar power in places all over the Southwest. There’s people interested in buying clean power from solar sources.”
“What gets lost, I think, is that we can solve our people’s challenges while growing a local economy. We can direct tribal resources to small solar systems that would solve our people’s electricity needs. We can direct tribal resources to putting in water catchment systems on our homes. That’s the answer,” says Gearon.