Council debates NGS extension

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, April 18, 2013

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T he outcome of the 25-year lease extension legislation for Navajo Generating Station remained unknown at press time as the Navajo Nation Council continued to debate the bill during the spring session on Wednesday.

Speaker Johnny Naize (Blue Gap-Tachee/Cottonwood-Tselani/Low Mountain/Many Farms/Nazlini) is sponsoring the bill that would extend the lease from 2019 to 2044 and include an increase of $42 million in annual revenue to the tribe.

The initial lease was approved in 1969 for 50 years and is set to expire Dec. 22, 2019.

Proponents of the lease extension said it would continue Navajo employment at NGS and would also allow for the continued employment of Navajos at Kayenta Mine, which supplies coal to the power plant.

"The biggest question that you have to address today is should we approve the lease amendment?" Naize said to the Council.

Hours before the session, Navajo Nation police blocked access to the Council chamber from both directions of the main road as well as the back access road.

Supporters of the lease were holding signs stating, "Support families, vote NGS," and at least one of those signs was posted in the window of the North Conference room. The chamber gallery was also filled hours prior to the session with some audience members wearing fluorescent yellow T-shirts with the words, "UMWA Coal Miner."

"This is a decision that needs to be made by the Navajo Nation Council to benefit our Navajo people, not only today but for the future," Naize said.

Sam Woods, who was a member of the lease negotiation team, said the team kept in mind the tribe's perspective to increase tax and lease revenues, sustain jobs, job skill development, educational opportunities, community benefits, plant ownership, adhere to tribal laws, and recognize Navajo's water.

He also mentioned that in order for the lease extension to become effective, it would need the approval of the Council, President Ben Shelly, and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

Throughout the weeks leading to Wednesday's session, delegates have been hearing opinions about the lease from NGS and Kayenta Mine employees and from grassroots individuals, said Lorenzo Curley (Houck/Klagetoh/Lupton/Nahata Dziil/Wide Ruins).

Curley said the tribe should continue to have a business relationship with NGS by forming a lease, but not necessary this lease.

The Council approved the amendment made by Dwight Witherspoon (Forest Lake/Hardrock/Kits'iili/Piñon/Whippoorwill) to have nothing in the NGS lease that prohibits the Navajo Nation from making a water rights claim to the 50,000 acre-feet of water from the Upper Colorado River Basin that NGS uses beginning in 2019.

The Council voted to approve that amendment with a vote of 17-5 in favor.

Witherspoon attempted a second amendment relating to the employment of Navajos at NGS but withdrew it after Council returned to session after lunch.

Prior to the lunch recess, Russell Begaye (Shiprock) said the section for executing Navajo preference in employment was eliminated from the lease extension. Instead certain areas of employment would be based on individuals who have "superior abilities" required for job selection and based on qualifications without regard to race, color, creed, religion, national origin, disability or age.

"This is offensive to me," Begaye said about the elimination of the Navajo preference clause.

The Council had not voted on the lease extension as of press time Wednesday. At the Feb. 28 Naa'bik'iyati' Committee meeting, the legislation had been ruled out of order by committee Chair Pro Tem Elmer Begay (Dilkon/Greasewood Springs/Indian Wells/Teesto/White Cone).

Begay rendered his decision after some committee members expressed concern that Shelly's appointed negotiation team did not include a delegate which violated Title 18 of the Navajo Nation Code. Title 18 is the section of Navajo law that outlines the provisions for mines and minerals, including how those entities are negotiated, developed, permitted and leased.

In an email Wednesday to the Times, Erny Zah, communications director for the Office of the President and Vice President, wrote that no elected leaders, including Council delegates, were appointed to the negotiating team.

"President has the authority under Title 2 to appoint a negotiating team," Zah wrote.

Despite being ruled out of order, the bill was listed on the April 11 agenda for the Naa'bik'iyati' Committee - much to the surprise of some committee members - and was voted on with 10 in favor and 11 opposed in order to have it move onto the spring session agenda.

In a letter Wednesday to the Council from Shelly, he urged the Council to approve the lease extension then reiterated that Navajo law gave him the authority to appoint a negotiation team.

He wrote that the negotiation team developed "a good solid" agreement and under the current lease, the revenue paid to the tribe is approximately $3 million a year but if Council approves the lease extension the tribe will receive $42 million a year starting in 2019.

"We have been told by SRP there is little, if no room to renegotiate," Shelly wrote. "They consider the major points of the agreement to be exhausted, such as jurisdiction and money."

He also wrote that further negotiations would be "detrimental" to the tribe and the employees of Navajo Generating Station.

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