Power plant debate

Diné have mixed opinions on Navajo Generating Station retrofit

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, April 28, 2011

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

Traffic driving on U.S. Highway 89 drive in front of the Navajo Generating Station Saturday in Page, Ariz.

Given that it's on Navajo land, fueled by Navajo coal, staffed mainly by Navajo workers - and also that Navajos have to breathe its smoke - it's perhaps no wonder that the Navajo Generating Station is manufacturing more than electricity and emissions these days.

It's also generating controversy among the Diné about whether or not it should be required to spend up to $1.1 billion on scrubbers to clear up the brown cloud that currently hovers over northern Arizona, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering proposing.

If the rule is imposed, the plant's major stakeholder, the Salt River Project, has threatened to close it down. SRP says it would not be economically viable to install a retrofit that costs nearly twice as much as the owners spent to build the plant in the early 1970s.

On one side of the issue are the Navajo environmental groups. At an April 15 meeting in Black Mesa, Ariz., representatives of Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, the Black Mesa Water Coalition and To Nizhóní Ání (Beautiful Water Speaks) all took the same view: retrofitting the smokestacks would be just a start. Eventually, the plant must transition to sustainable technology, preferably solar.

The groups say pollution from the plant is responsible for high levels of asthma and respiratory infections in the area, and the devastation they say is caused by mining coal from Black Mesa to fuel it is not worth the jobs it creates.

But hang around LeChee Chapter, where the power plant is located, and you'll be hard-pressed to find someone who agrees. The chapter recently passed a resolution urging the USEPA to back off. The resolution points out the plant is voluntarily installing a $45 million retrofit that will reduce its nitrous oxide emissions by 40 percent, and that should be enough.

LeChee Chapter President Irene Nez-Whitekiller says she thinks the environmentalists are not fully aware of the importance of Navajo Generation Station to the tribe, especially its northwestern area.

"Nearly everyone in LeChee has a connection to the NGS," she said. "I myself have nephews working there."

Even community activist Ivan Gamble, a consistent proponent of bringing a solar plant to LeChee, says he understands his neighbors' defense of the old power plant.

"That plant has put a lot of people through college," he said, "including me."

Economic mainstay

LeChee Chapter Community Services Coordinator Wilford Lane said it's almost impossible to overestimate the economic importance of the plant to both LeChee and its neighbor on the other side of the Navajo Nation boundary, Page, Ariz.

Lane said the NGS employs 440 Diné, mostly in LeChee and Page, but also in Coppermine, Kaibeto and as far away as Tuba City.

It provides about $70 million in revenue and wages to the Navajo Nation, along with $325,000 in scholarships - including the coveted Chief Manuelito. The only other major industry in the area is tourism, and that's very seasonal.

The environmentalists, on the other hand, argue that the economic benefits of the plant are a drop in the bucket compared to the devastation it has caused.

"Let's talk about the real cost of burning coal," said environmental scientist Shirley Peaches of Flagstaff at the Black Mesa meeting. "Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which leads to global warming, which leads to ecosystem alteration, species extinction, famine and global war."

On Black Mesa itself, community member Louise Benally said the cost has been particularly devastating: families displaced, homes and gravesites leveled, a land partition agreement that has caused lingering bitterness between the Navajo and Hopi tribes.

Marshall Johnson of To Nizhóní Ání pointed out that by far the largest user of NGS power is the Central Arizona Project, which pumps Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, bypassing the Navajo Nation.

"You have made it possible for the cities of Phoenix and Tucson to thrive," he told the 20 or so Navajos who attended the meeting. "Maricopa Country grew 4,000 percent between 2000 and 2010. We made it affordable for them to do that."

Meanwhile, he added, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority buys electricity at market price - in spite of the fact that it is produced on Navajo land, by Navajo labor, burning Navajo coal.

However topsy-turvy the system may seem, SRP argues on its Web site that to mess with it now would send much of Arizona into a downward economic spiral that would drag the Navajo and Hopi tribes down with it.

Shuttering NGS would also cause the closure of the Kayenta Mine, just as closure of the Mohave Generating Station triggered the end of the nearby Black Mesa Mine. NGS is the only customer of the Kayenta Mine, which employs Navajos and Hopis, and props up both tribes' budgets.

Without NGS, the Central Arizona Project would have to find an alternate source of power, which likely would increase water rates for users to double or triple and could jeopardize a series of delicately negotiated water rights settlements with communities and tribes along the Colorado River.

Why not go green?

But Anna Frazier of Diné CARE says the whole doomsday scenario could be avoided if NGS would just start transitioning toward sustainable energy.

"We're not trying to close the plant," she said. "We just want to see a just transition toward wind and solar."

Rather than spend $1.1 billion cleaning up the stacks - which would improve visibility but still not address some of the health issues associated with the other, less visible pollutants in the emissions - why not put that money toward solar panels, the environmentalists suggest.

The plant would still employ about the same number of people, plus construction workers for the conversion.

Barry Drost, NGS project manager, said the Salt River Project is very interested in transitioning to renewables and has already started investing in both wind and solar projects, but the NGS site does not lend itself to either.

"The wind at the site is not of the quality that you need for electrical generation," Drost said. As for solar, "If we're going to go that direction, most of the other owners would probably rather have solar installations closer to their (customer) load."

Also, he said, solar and wind generation fluctuate with the weather, while coal-fired power is steady.

"Our consumers, especially the CAP, need consistent power whereas power from renewables tends to be intermittent," he explained.

However, SRP is not ruling out a transition to renewable power at Navajo Generating Station or somewhere nearby down the road.

"Part of the negotiations we're having with the other stakeholders include participating in a study that would be conducted by the Department of the Interior to examine that option," Drost said. "Right now, the way the cost and the needs are, it doesn't make sense, but that doesn't mean it won't make sense in five or 10 years."

Nikki Alex of the Black Mesa Water Coalition said the only opposition she has encountered to the environmentalists' plan is from coal miners on Black Mesa and NGS workers.

But Lester Begay of the Navajo Nation Boilermakers Union cautioned the environmentalists not to stereotype laborers.

"In my union, we're all for BART (best available retrofit technology - the term the EPA is considering using for the proposed retrofit)," he said.

This seems predictable enough, since presumably any kind of retrofit would require an army of welders - but Begay said that's not why the union is backing the cleanup proposal.

"As boilermakers, we travel all over the country," he said. "We've seen that the dirtiest plants are right here in the Four Corners. Other owners aren't like SRP. They say, 'What can we do to be better neighbors in the community?'"
LeChee residents, however, seem happy to have NGS as a neighbor.

"Every time there's something going on in the community, like a trash pickup, we go to them and they help us out," Nez-Whitekiller said. "They do a lot in the community that people don't even know about."

The environmentalists reported at the meeting that an informal survey revealed 80 percent of Navajos support cleaning up NGS.

Whether or not that's true, Nez-Whitekiller thinks her chapter's opinion should have more clout.

"We're the ones that established the NGS," she said. "It was our elders who gave up their land."

The way the system works, however, everyone will have an equal chance to comment. The EPA will issue its proposal this summer, followed by a comment period, and hopes to have a final ruling by early 2012.

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