Navajo and Hopi Leaders Call on Congress to Help Them Survive the End of Coal

Navajo Generating Station
Navajo Generating Station
Photo: AP

The Navajo Generating Station (NGS) was originally slated to run until 2044. That didn’t quite work out. The largest coal power plant in the West will now shutter next year—25 years ahead of schedule. That closure could prove devastating to the Navajo and Hopi, two sovereign tribal nations whose economies depend on it.

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Leaders and representatives from both tribes sat before the congressional Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources Thursday to make their case that the government should intervene to keep the plant running or support the tribes in what they decide to do next. Native American families need this Arizona-based plant, or they’ll face increased unemployment, separated families, and heightened poverty. Tribes already lack access to clean water, reliable electricity, and speedy internet.

“These are unthinkable conditions in a country this prosperous, but it is a reality,” said Hopi Chairman Tim Nuvangyaoma to committee members. “These circumstances will only get worse if NGS closes.”

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As much as I agree with the next person that coal is Very Bad, the chairman makes a fair point. Here’s the problem: The power plant, as well as the Kayenta Coal Mine that supplies the plant with this dirty fuel source, is a major employer among both tribes. At NGS, Navajo make up 90 percent of the employees. Just about all employees at the mine are Native American.

These people will be forced to leave their homes if they lose these coal jobs, which can pay up to $100,000 a year, according to testimony from Marie Justice, president of the local United Mine Workers chapter that largely represents Native Americans. They’re not the only ones who will be left to search for new jobs, either. As Republican Subcommittee Chairman Paul Gosar pointed out in his opening remarks, both these projects contribute substantially to the Navajo and Hopi’s general budgets—enough that losing those funds could lead to layoffs within government offices, Nuvangyaoma said.

“Loss of revenue from the Kayenta Mine would result in a severe curtailment of Hopi governmental functions and services, which my people can’t afford,” Nuvangyaoma went on.

The plant and mine are likely to close, though. That’s a fact—and an unfortunate one for these communities, which have grown dependent on them.

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What’s ultimately driving the plant’s owners—Salt River Project, Arizona Public Service Co., NV Energy, and Tucson Electric Power—to close NGS is, well, the market. (Not persistent environmental organizations, as closure opponents kept stating during the hearing.) Leaders with both the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe couldn’t even deny market influence when Committee Member Darren Soto of Florida asked why they believed the plant was closing.

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Coal is expensive, while natural gas is dirt cheap and renewables are becoming more affordable. Companies don’t want to lose money for the sake of an outdated energy source. Utilities made that clear when they announced the plant’s closure in 2017. Coal is also dangerous for human health, and NGS contributes to $127 million in annual health costs because of the particulate matter and coal ash it spews into the air.

“Pollution will stay in our lungs,” said Navajo Nation member Nicole Horseherder, in opposition to the plant during the hearing. “This is not the path we want.”

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You know what utilities would rather invest in? Renewables. That’s happening on the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation, where its new Kayenta Solar Farm will be expanding. A smooth and fair transition is key to ensuring that these communities remain secure once coal production is wiped off their lands. Some argued the utilities should be responsible for that task; others argued the federal government. Everyone appeared to agree, however, that families shouldn’t be left to fend for themselves. Ranking Committee Member Alan Lowenthal spoke to this eloquently.

“To suggest that workers simply move on from coal for health and environmental reasons would not only be naive,” he said. “It would be unfair to the communities where coal is the lifeblood of the economy.”

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Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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DISCUSSION

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This post should be studied by every environmental policy student everywhere. It’s packed with irony on the one hand and an important problem that isn’t being addressed on the other. Addressing climate change by reducing fossil fuel is truly going to disrupt the economy as we know it. We need to be honest about that.

On that note, very well written, Yessenia.

Trump jumped on the issue of coal by focusing on coal miners as hard working miners of coal, not necessarily as white folks who happen to mine coal. Framing coal mining and burning coal for electricity as a good for a big chunk of people. By parcing ethnicity and race of miners, like environmental justice folks may do, it limits the argument to “these miners good and those miners bad.”. It’s almost like the republicans were steering the discussion of helping the tribes by tossing the environmentalists and social folks argument back in their face.

For example, oil drilling is good for the Mandan et al (three affiliated tribes) in the Bakken oil field - bad for the Standing Rock Sioux in South Dakota who missed out on the oil riches action - yet have a pipeline run north of the reservation.

Hillary tried to address coal mining in here platform, but it was vague. Something like offering government funded retraining and/or night school for out of work miners. Nobody except nerds want to go back to school at 40 years old.

There’s going to be a lot of work associated with plant decommissioning and mine reclamation. For instance, a front end loader operator working the coal face of a mine will make the same amount of money putting rock and soil back.

The thing about fossil fuel is that it creates really well paying jobs from the mine face or well head all the way to the tailpipe or stack.

For instance, the wheel loader for coal mining has a bucket size of about 25 cubic yards. It needs a union operator to drive it. It also employed well paid factory workers in Peoria to build it.

A cubic yard of coal weighs 0.64 tons. That’s about 16 tons of coal in one bucket. That amount of coal generates 129,600 kilowatt hours of electricity based on industry average of 1 ton equivelent coal generates 8,100 kilowatt hours electricity when burned. The average home uses about 11,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. So just that one bucket of coal can power about 12 homes for a year.

Or one bucket of coal produces the same electricity as roughly 250 300 watt solar panel operating at a capacity factor of 0.2.

This is not about environmental and climate problems. Just employment. There’s not much to do on a solar farm after it’s installed.

It’s energy density, goddamnit.