One Year After Navajo Generating Station Stopped Burning Coal: A Progress Report

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At one time, the Navajo Generating Station. located in northern Arizona not far from the Utah border, was the largest coal fired generating facility west of the Mississippi River. The electricity from NGS helped power street cars in Los Angeles, slot machines in Las Vegas, and street lights in Phoenix. It was a boon to millions of people — almost everyone, in fact, except the native people who lived near it.

Oh, sure, many members of the Navajo and Hopi tribes found employment at the power plant that bore their tribal  name, but the electricity it created never made it to the people living nearby, where up to 70% of the residents had noaccess to electricity. And the coal that powered NGS came from a mine that was developed on land not owned by Hopi or Navajo tribes specifically for the purpose of making sure the native people did not share in any of the profits.

[Correction: A reader challenged that last statement. I specifically recall reading about this some years ago but cannot find the citation. Therefore, I did some further research, which enlightened me further on this subject. The Bureau of Reclamation website says, “Coal for NGS comes exclusively from the Kayenta Mine located on tribal trust lands leased from the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe.”

But there’s more to the story. According to Wikipedia, “In 1964, Peabody Energy (then Peabody Western Coal), a publicly traded energy company based in the Midwestern United States, signed a contract with the Navajo Tribe and two years later with the Hopi Tribe, allowing the company mineral rights and use of an aquifer. The contract was negotiated by prominent natural resources attorney John Sterling Boyden, who claimed to be representing the Hopi Tribe while actually on the payroll of Peabody. It offered unusually advantageous terms for Peabody and was approved despite widespread opposition. The contract is also controversial because of misrepresentations made to the Hopi and Navajo tribes. Peabody Energy developed two coal strip mines on the Black Mesa reservation: the Black Mesa Mine and the Kayenta Mine.”

My assertion that the land where the coal came from was not owned by the native tribes was incorrect and I regret that error. Nevertheless, the arrangements under which NGS came to be powered by coal mined by Peabody were manifestly unfair to the tribes and a further example of the economic colonialism imposed on Native Americans since the first European settlers set foot on North America. The history of exploitation of the Navajo and Hopi people is long and complex. I appreciate the comment from aztoogden and welcome this opportunity to set the record straight.]

At the time the agreement was made to close NGS, its owners and Peabody Energy made a slew of promise to the Navajo and Hopi people. November 18 marked the one year anniversary of the last day coal was burned at NGS. To mark the occasion, Navajo Equitable Economy issued a report on the progress that has been made since. Here it is in graphic form:

Navajo Equitable Economy
Credit: Navajo Equitable Economy

In some areas, such as ending the use of coal regionally and creating renewable energy installations to replace the output from NGS, things are pretty good but in others, particularly cooperation from Peabody Energy and the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the tribes are seeing virtually no progress toward cleaning up the environmental horror show left behind by the closing of the Keyenta mine.

Native Leaders Speak Out

In an email to CleanTechnica, Ben Nuvamsa, former chairman of the Hopi tribe, said, “Our communities deserve to know where we are with progress or lack thereof on any work to support our local economy and the cleanup of our land, air, and water. In some critical areas of the transition, we are getting dismissive or no real updates from Peabody, federal agencies like OSMRE, or tribal authorities.”

Nicole Horseherder of Tó Nizhóní Ání adds, “Over the past year, we have engaged government officials, utility companies, and other stakeholders. We have seen movement in some areas, and in others we have seen inaction, that is costing Navajos and Hopis greatly. Peabody, for example, has failed to lay out a plan to clean up the Kayenta Mine. We have already seen how reclamation of the Black Mesa Mine has been painfully slow and insufficient. We can’t allow this to keep happening.”  Tó Nizhóní Ání says its mission is to “preserve and protect the environment, land, water, sky and people and advocate for the wise and responsible use of the natural resources of the Black Mesa region.”

“The closing of NGS was only the beginning,” says Carol Davis, of Diné C.A.R.E., a non-profit that “advocates for our traditional teachings by protecting and providing a voice for all life within and beyond the Four Sacred Mountains. We promote regenerative and sustainable uses of natural resources consistent with the Diné philosophy of life.”

“Organizations like ours remain vigilant on the work that’s still left to be done to ensure that the communities that were for decades affected by the extraction and pollution of our resources are taken care of,” she adds. “Lack of access to water, which was already a huge issue for many years, has become even more painful during this time of covid-19. Our land was once dotted with springs and wells before the use of coal. There is much work to do still to restore the health of our communities.”

Promises, Promises

Many of the promises made to the Navajo and Hopi people remain just that — promises. The Navajo Equitable Economy report card makes it clear that, to date, there has been “no transition assistance funding from the closure of NGS committed to yet by SRP, TEP, CAP, DOI, NV Energy, or LADWP.” In other words, lots of talk but no real action. Some things never change and native American people continue to get the short end of the stick from the federal government and the community around them.

We have said many times that reducing carbon emissions by eliminating coal fired facilities and transitioning away from fossil fueled transportation cannot come at the expense of low income people and under-served communities. Andrew Carnegie once offered this sage advice “Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.” Today, Carnegie’s words would be labeled as dangerous socialist claptrap but that does not make them any less true.

The Navajo and Hopi people have helped make the American deserts bloom and brought employment opportunities to millions of Americans over the years. Failing to give them what they need to live in a clean environment is an unconscionable breach of a public trust. These people have been exploited and oppressed for hundreds of years. It is long past time for America to pay its debt to them.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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