Workers say goodbye to coal train

Workers say goodbye to coal train

By Krista Allen
Special to the Times

LECHEE, Ariz.

Hundreds of people on Sunday said goodbye to the coal train that had been running through northwestern Navajo for 46 years.

“It was emotional,” said train specialist Ron Little, along with Tommy Begay, who hauled 8,600 tons of coal from the coal storage silo in the Klethla Valley near Peabody Western Coal Company’s Kayenta Mine to the Navajo Generating Station. Dozens of people stood at almost every railroad crossing and parked alongside the roads to wave and bid farewell to the train, said Little.

“A lot of people were standing by the roads and at each crossing — people waving, thumbs up, clapping — I mean, we had a large amount of people out there supporting us,” Little said. “Some people have said, ‘This is sad. This shouldn’t be happening.’ But we got shut down by coalitions,” he said, “and I kind of blame my tribe, mainly the Council delegates.”

The five utility owners in February 2017 voted to close NGS at the end of this year, saying that persistently low natural gas prices no longer make it economically viable. Mike Hummel, deputy general manager for Salt River Project, the plant operator, said at the time that the plant wouldn’t even make it to the end of 2019 if the owners didn’t broker a deal with the Navajo Nation to keep it running until that point and allow removal and restoration activities.

Diné lawmakers in March voted against legislation that would have supported Navajo Transitional Energy Company’s independent acquisition of both NGS and Kayenta Mine. “I didn’t really mind,” Little said about that event, “but I (sympathized) for the young guys that we worked with who have families. Some of them were just now starting out. Now they have to end their careers and go south.”

31 years ago

Little has been working on the Black Mesa and Lake Powell Railroad for 31 years. He started work as a temporary overhaul plant repairman at NGS on March 31, 1981. He is Tódích’íi’nii and born for Kiis’áanii Áshiihí.

“As a Navajo, we have to start from the ground up,” Little said. “So, I kind of busted myself down to labor grade. That’s where I started and worked my way up to get my career with coal trains.”

It all started one day when a coal delivery came in and Little happened to be there and began to observe. “A (non-Native) guy (crawled) out and said to me, ‘If you don’t push a broom that much, you’ll learn something better,’” Little said. “So, I did, I took his advice. I was on the track maintenance first and then track utility, and from there I went on to coal operations and then train operator trainee.”

Little started driving the coal train in September 1988, when he was 29 years old. He learned everything, the ins and outs, from his supervisor, Tom Jensen, and the late Bob Sears.

“I’m one of the youngest that started with operation back then,” Little said. “A lot of the guys were older than me and they retired. One of them said, ‘If you stick to it, you’re going to be the youngest to close the plant.’ And that’s what I did.”

On Aug. 25, Little made his final coal delivery with 86 hopper cars and completed the job around 2:30 p.m. “We started out with smaller tracks,” Little remembers. “Then years ago, the (entire railroad) had to be (revamped) for safety reasons and capability.”

Little knows every descending grade, curve, culvert, and railroad crossing on the BMLP Railroad like the back of his hand. “I know every bit of track — I was really on top (of the ball),” Little said. “I never had a fatality with human lives. I did everything safe.”

A heart-rending end

In an emotional interview with the Navajo Times, Little said leaving for his final run for coal on Sunday morning was relaxed but heart-rending. “It was really emotional starting the train up the hill and then coming back down the hill because I’ve been doing it for such a long time,” Little said. “Half of my years were spent there—doing what I most love.”

He added, “I worked with Mr. Tommy Begay, who was my assistant that day (we) ran the last train. It was quiet. Both of us thought about the past and how this was … fun. It came down to a sad situation where it was emotional just delivering (our) last coal haul.” Little said when he first started operating the train in 1988, there were only 60 to 65 hopper cars. Since then, he says, more cars were added.

Denny Tsosie, originally from Kaibeto, Arizona, had been working on the railroad for four years when Little started operating the coal train. He worked for 30 years on the railroad before he retired in 2014. He is Kiyaa’áanii and born for Tl’izílání. “If I had known it was going to shut down this early, I would’ve stayed but I didn’t know at the time,” said Tsosie, who dug out his old IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) Local Union shirt just to wear it to the NGS Farewell event at the plant on Monday.

“I came on in 1974. “Unit one was starting up and it was a rigorous operating training school that we all had to go through,” he said. “That’s when I left (in 1975) and then I came back in 1978. I worked as a scaffolder and then I ended up going to the railroad in 1982.”

‘Best job in the world’

Tsosie said he enjoyed working at NGS and it really is the “the best job in the world” and with it comes “war stories.” “I myself ran into equipment at milepost 34 and I ended up hitting a vehicle on (its side),” Tsosie remembered. “And then we had close calls where some people were actually pushing the vehicle out of the way when we came up on them. With a load of (hopper cars) you can’t stop. It takes over a mile to stop.”

Other things include ice on the rails during the winter, broken rails, broken ties, and derailments, said Tsosie. “There’s a lot that goes on,” he said. “You don’t go to work every day thinking it’s going to be a so-so day. Every trip was unique in itself.” Tsosie said being retired from NGS doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about what is happening here. “I do because I knew a lot of the younger employees back then,” Tsosie added.

“Of course, they’re middle age now. But I got to know them and they’re here (Farewell event). I feel for them and their families. It’s going to hit us pretty good here soon.” More than 540 people were invited to SRP’s private, invitation-only NGS farewell luncheon on Monday, during which 800 people, including 250 working contractors, were served. The luncheon included speeches by SRP and NGS senior leadership and plant historians.

Tours of the plant were given.

‘I’ll miss my paycheck’

Tsosie, along with some of his former co-workers, was one of those invitees. “There’s a lot of people I haven’t seen in a while,” Tsosie said. “It’s good to see them. Some have already gone to the Valley. And I’ve got a son who’s already down there and I’ve got a daughter who’ll be leaving here in about two weeks. I guess the (Navajo Nation) isn’t ready to put people back to work now. Everyone’s hollering green but we’re not ready for it.”

Clyde Sampson, a retired NGS mechanic who knows a lot about the plant’s history, said the Diné leaders have no idea what goes on at the plant nor do they know anything about the plant’s historical events, such as the groundbreaking ceremonies for the plant in 1970, during which Bechtel Power Corporation began work on the plant.

“When the train first ran, it was magnetic,” Sampson said. “The locomotives couldn’t pull a full load of hopper cars up a hill. That’s when it was changed to electricity. Unit one (came online) in 1973, unit two in 1974, and unit three in 1975. Just when it was completed, that’s when I went to work.”

“This is history and I was here long before this (plant) was built,” said Sampson’s wife. “I’ve seen this and now it’s going away.” John Coggins, associate general manager and chief power system executive for SRP, said the plant, with all its bittersweet memories, is shutting down Dec. 23, just two days before Christmas. “I’d like to thank all of the SRP employees and all of our contract partners for their outstanding work,” Coggins said during his welcome address.

Ron Little said his last day at NGS is Dec. 23, after which he will go home to Naatsis’áán-Rainbow City, Utah to maintain his livestock and ranch, where he is planning to “kick back and enjoy life.” “I enjoyed helping (run) the plant—supporting the units with hauling coal,” Little added. “Mostly, I’ll probably miss my paycheck.”