NGS owners considering amended lease

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, May 2, 2013

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The owners of Navajo Generating Station are continuing to review the counteroffer made by the Navajo Nation Council in response to the power plant's proposed lease extension agreement.

On Wednesday, Council delegate Russell Begaye (Shiprock) said Salt River Project, which owns and operates NGS, was opposing the lease because of the amendments made by the Council during a special session on Monday and signed by President Ben Shelly on Tuesday.

Begaye said his amendment was referenced because it instructs NGS owners not to oppose the Navajo Nation's pursuit of water claims to the Upper Colorado River.

According to Begaye, NGS uses more than 34,000 acre-feet annually of the 50,000 acre-feet of water apportioned to it by the state of Arizona to power its boilers and cooling system.

"All I am asking is that they don't oppose us," Begaye said, then added that he was being "nice" by simply telling SRP owners not to oppose the tribe when it makes its water claims to the 50,000 acre-feet of water at the end of the lease, which would be in 2044.

Begaye's other amendment directed NGS owners to notify the tribe two years in advance before operation of one or more units at NGS is ceased.

The lease extension would be between the tribe and Salt River Project, Arizona Public Service Co., Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Nevada Energy, and Tucson Electric Power and requires consent by the Council, Shelly and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

Salt River Project spokesman Scott Harelson said SRP, on behalf of the other owners, has not rejected the terms of the lease.

"Rather, we have communicated to the Council our concern about certain amendments that have been added to the legislation," Harelson wrote in an email Wednesday to the Times.

He said the amendments were received by SRP Tuesday night and "will take some time to thoughtfully review them and consider their implications before determining how to proceed."

The Council voted 20 in favor of the amended agreement, which would extend the power plant's least for an additional 25 years starting in 2019, with one opposing vote by Council delegate Dwight Witherspoon (Forest Lake/Hardrock/K’ts'’’l’/Pi–on/Whippoorwill).

The lease extension includes an increase in the annual payment to the tribe from $608,400 to $43 million. The tribe would also receive a total amount of $150 million from 2013 to 2019.

Proponents cite the need to continue employment opportunities for Navajos at NGS while opponents cite the environmental impacts caused by the 2,250-megawatt coal-fired power plant.

Shelly said the lease renewal "marks a new era of Navajo prosperity."

"We are securing the jobs of countless number of Navajo and non-Navajo people. This administration and the Navajo Council understand the vital role NGS has in the economics of the region and to the Navajo Nation," the president said.

Another reason Shelly signed the lease was to meet the April 30 deadline to be eligible for a $1 million signing bonus.

For Kayenta Mine employee Robert Tom, extending the lease continues the "lifeline" for his family.

Tom has worked for 32 years at Kayenta Mine, which supplies coal to NGS. He started as an equipment operator then worked his way to becoming a coal loading shovel operator.

"It's the main support for our families," he said.

Howard Tsosie and others shared Tom's sentiment as they waited outside the Council chamber on Monday.

"'Vote yes on NGS,' it's what we want to hear," Tsosie said then added he has worked 33 years as a truck driver at Kayenta Mine.

According to Harelson, the power plant, located near Page, Ariz., employs about 520 people, more than 85 percent of whom are Navajo.

Securing the continued employment of Navajos at NGS was one of the issues debated by delegates during the special session.

Walter Phelps (Cameron/Coalmine Mesa/Leupp/Tolani Lake/Ts’dii To'ii) motioned to have the most qualified individual, regardless of traits such as race, gender and age, be hired by NGS in addition to having Indian preference rather than Navajo preference in employment.

Phelps' motion quickly drew criticism from Witherspoon, Leonard Tsosie (Baca-Prewitt/Casamero Lake/Counselor/Littlewater/Ojo Encino/Pueblo Pintado/Torreon/Whitehorse Lake), and Katherine Benally (Chilchinbeto/Dennehotso/Kayenta).

"Navajo preference essentially may not be perfect but it provides benefits that provide for our people in employment," Witherspoon said.

In reading the amending language, Tsosie said it starts off as sounding beneficial, in terms of hiring the most qualified individual, but slowly reduces the chance of a Navajo being hired.

"By giving preference and specifically saying to qualified Indians rather than to Navajos, what does that mean?" Tsosie said. "Navajos are Indians too."

Phelps' amendment was passed in a vote of 12 in favor and 9 opposed.

Elmer Begay (Dilkon/Greasewood Springs/Indian Wells/Teesto/White Cone) attempted to have the Council approve the inclusion of having a traditional Navajo ceremony conducted every four years.

This ceremony would be a way to continue the cultural and traditional practices of the people and it would be an offering to Mother Earth for the coal that is extracted and used for NGS, Begay said.

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