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Guest Column: NTUA fails to get community consent for Cameron solar project

By Jessica Keetso
Tó Nizhóní Ání

On May 6, 2021, Cameron Chapter hosted an online community forum to discuss the proposed Cameron Solar Generating Facility. Navajo Tribal Utility Authority representatives and Cameron Chapter officials were in attendance.

This community forum comes at the heels of a resolution to approve a lease between the Navajo Nation and NTUA for a solar generation facility in Cameron. The bill was approved on March 31 by the Resource and Development Committee.

President Jonathan Nez issued a press release on April 6, praising the project and hailing it as a continuation of the Háyoołkááł Proclamation and commended officials for working together to make project (as well as the Red Mesa/Tapaha solar project) possible.

The press release and legislation gave the impression that this project was a “done deal” and that all necessary documents and requirements were in place.

However, based on the community forum in Cameron, it seems NTUA forgot to mark “community engagement” off their checklist.

At the May 6 forum, Cameron community raised numerous questions and concerns that NTUA did not adequately address. A key concern raised by the community was that it was not adequately informed of this project nor given regular updates or reports on its progress. Nez’s press release and the legislation was ill-timed and caught the community off guard.

According to various consultants to the Navajo Nation, Cameron is one of seven prime locations for utility-scale renewable energy development. These seven locations were identified based on criteria, including possessing a combination of land, solar or wind potential and transmission accessibility.

The chapters that overlap these energy corridors unfortunately must deal with being bombarded with proposals from outside (and inside) energy companies.

As Nez haphazardly tries to push his renewable energy agenda, it has become clear that he lacks the administrative foresight to ensure renewable energy isn’t monopolized, that each community who host these projects will receive the maximum benefits possible.

The Navajo Nation stumbling unsystematically through projects needs to stop. Developing energy on the Nation has never been about community inclusion or consent and developers would rather not give community benefits because it’s more money out of their pockets.

The truth of the matter is, the Navajo Nation is in desperate need of an energy policy reform, a grid infrastructure overhaul, and a new energy business model. In the case of Cameron, NTUA’s action are turning out to be just as disappointing.

NTUA circumvented certain requirements on account of being a tribal enterprise. It jumped ahead on this solar project leaping through requirements and over community consultation and consent. On May 6, it became clear that NTUA will only do the bare minimum when it comes to community engagement, and they failed to take the opportunity to use the forum to improve trust and relationships with Cameron.

Instead, NTUA, in perfect tribal-enterprise fashion, resorted to treating the Cameron community with indifference.

NTUA was represented by Arash Moalemi, Larry Jackson Jr. and Deenise Becenti. They provided a presentation through Google Meet. Unfortunately, most residents could not view the presentation because a majority joined the virtual meeting via phone call.

NTUA said the project will produce 200 megawatts of power, all of which will be sold to Salt River Project for 25 years. This project will also sell 100 MW of transmission rights to SRP.

To give some context 1 MW of solar PV electricity will power about 150 homes in Arizona, so 200 MW could power about 30,000 homes. In 2004 NTUA estimated that there are a total of 48,000 homes on the Navajo Nation, so basically, this project could power majority of the homes on the Navajo Nation and since buying renewable energy is less expensive than fossil fuel, every Navajo electricity bill could be substantially cheaper too.

However, the Navajo people will not receive this energy unless they are SRP customers.

Some of the biggest benefits of this project will go to the Navajo Nation central government, which will receive the following: $90 million in transmission payments; more than $13 million in land lease payments; and $6 million in tax revenue.

Based on the community forum, there are five areas of concern: the lease area, the term of the lease area, Cameron Chapter’s supporting resolution, permit-holder compensation and community benefits.

Regarding the lease area and term the total acreage is 1,100 acres, however the chapter’s supporting resolution indicates that NTUA will lease 5,000 acres.

NTUA’s response to this discrepancy was that they only have the rights to build on the 1,100 acres of land. So then what will happen to the remaining 3,899 acres of land? How will it be used?

NTUA did not fully answer this question during the forum. NTUA was also asked where the project would be located specifically, but NTUA didn’t give any details and instead asked community members to contact them directly regarding this question.

The land-lease duration also lacked clarity, NTUA told the community that the land lease was for 25 years, however, again in the legislation NTUA has the option of extending the lease term for an additional 25 years. So Cameron could lose the use of that land for 50 years altogether.

Why would NTUA not disclose this information to the community? And under what conditions would NTUA need another 25 years, if the average solar panel life span is 25 years?

A letter from the Cameron Community Land Use Planning Committee states there is also “cultural significance” in the project area. The vice president of the Diné Hataathłi Association, Lorenzo Max, “describes NTUA’s project area as an important ceremonial offering site as well as a herb collection site that has been used for generations by medicine people and community.”

Previous Cameron Chapter officials discouraged the use of this area and would like it not to be disturbed.

Regarding Cameron Chapter’s supporting resolution, on July 11, 2018, the past Cameron Chapter president brought the resolution’s validity into question during the community forum. This past official told NTUA that two years ago Cameron Chapter was under the impression that the supporting resolution was only to approve a feasibility study and not an actual project.

He said NTUA might not have been forthcoming nor transparent with their intentions, thus the chapter approved the resolution under false pretenses. NTUA tried to reassure the community and defend their past actions but to no avail.

As indicated later by a comment that Cameron resident Shanna Yazzie put in the chat box, “We need to retract this resolution.”

Regarding permit-holder compensation, the CLUPC statement letter was critical of the process in which NTUA acquired the project site.

According to the letter, NTUA approached an elderly woman who had grazing rights to the land that the project is proposed to be built on. This woman, who is not proficient in speaking or writing in English was not even permitted to consult with her children before she signed the land-waiver agreement.

Later when her children asked NTUA for a copy of the documents their mother signed they were disregarded and have yet to receive anything from NTUA.

Aside from the way NTUA procured the tribal land-use consent forms, we need to ask what these waiver forms actually mean and why compensation for the diminishment in value of the land would be the only way a permittee holder would be compensated?

Why is there is no timeline for how long the permittee holder would lose access to the land and what kind of development associated with a solar project could possible cause the land to lose value?

Land is very valuable to Diné, no matter what state it’s in and NTUA just taking a resident’s right to use the land away without compensation is unacceptable.

Similar unknowns exist for another NTUA solar project that is proposed for the Red Mesa Tapaha area. However, the land users in that situation were given $43,750 as compensation. Why did Red Mesa residents receive compensation, and the Cameron resident did not?

Regarding the lack of community benefits, the two main benefits that NTUA focuses on is scholarships and jobs.

NTUA stipulates that it will “fully support and will advocate, along with the Cameron Chapter officials,” that the chapter should be compensated. Further, the 2013 Navajo Nation Energy Policy states “communities impacted by energy development will be able to share in a portion of the financial benefits.”

In the policy it indicates that a chapter is eligible to receive 5% of the annual lease payment for each lease year. If we were to take the energy policy as it’s written then Cameron Chapter would be entitled to $650,000 for the life of this project providing the project only last 25 years.

However, because Cameron Chapter is not LGA certified, NTUA simply stipulated that Cameron Chapter could not receive these funds. If NTUA holds these projects on behalf of the people, there is no excuse why NTUA could not create a way for these funds to be set aside in the name of a community, certified or not, to use according to its priorities or land-use plan.

Renewable energy and clean energy on the Navajo Nation are important going forward. It is essential, to mitigate climate change and save our water sources. However, it should not come at a cost to communities.

To repeat the same methodologies of past energy developers and letting the Navajo Nation strike the same kinds of deals with energy companies that gave us unprofitable leases and weak contracts will inevitably led to more negative community outcomes.

More profits will leave the Navajo Nation, while harmful environmental and social health impacts are left with the host communities.

As an organizer with Tó Nizhóní Ání, we hold no position on whether this project should proceed. However, the organization is compelled to point out the lack of substantial community benefits, the lack of trust, transparency, and a working relationship by the Navajo Nation as shown by the Cameron solar project.

It is time communities organize and speak up for the benefits that will make their communities stronger in the wake of this energy transition and climate crisis.

Jessica Keetso has a history of working with the Cameron Chapter since 2016 as a Little Colorado River Watershed Chapter Association organizer and currently is a Tó Nizhóní Ání organizer. Tó Nizhóní Ání is a Navajo grassroots community organization established to preserve and protect the environment, land, water, sky, and human health; and to advocate for the wise and responsible use of the natural resources in the Black Mesa region and throughout the Navajo Nation.


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