The Hopi Tribe Takes Controversial Coal Battle to Court

The Navajo Generating Station
The Navajo Generating Station
Photo: Matthew Dillon (Flickr)

The Hopi Tribe in northeastern Arizona is heading to the court to keep the largest coal plant in the West open. The tribe, along with the United Mine Workers of America and Peabody Energy, announced a lawsuit Tuesday against the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which powers 90 percent of its water pumping system through this plant’s coal-generated energy.


The Navajo Generating Station is slated to close at the end of 2019. So, naturally, the CAP has been on the hunt for a new power source to run its aqueduct system that serves communities in central and southern Arizona. The Hopi Tribe and other plaintiffs, however, argue that the water district is legally required to source its energy from the Navajo Generating Station so long as it’s open, hence the new lawsuit.

“Tribal leaders agreed to develop a mine and a power plant on sovereign lands using tribally-owned coal to move water across the state with the assurance that we would receive a sustaining revenue stream for 70 years,” said Hopi Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma, in a press release.

Local Native American tribes, like the Hopi and the Navajo Nation, have been committed to keeping open the plant and the Kayenta Mine, which supplies the plant’s coal. They’ve marched in front of the state Capitol and even testified before Congress. The plant and mine drive a large portion of the tribes’ economies: 90 percent of the plant’s employees are Navajo, and 99 percent of the mine’s employees are Native American. And as signs during Tuesday’s announcement stated, the plant supplies 85 percent of the Hopi Tribe’s annual budget.

“If you take away 85 percent of revenue of a government, that’s going to have a catastrophic effect on the tribe,” said Colin Campbell, the attorney representing the tribe, to Earther.

“The real injustice is that traditional working families and tribal people who have offered their land and resources for the benefit of the entire state stand to lose the most if the [station] is forced into early closure,” said United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, in a press release. “The CAP must fulfill its obligation to tribal people and comply with the law.”


Right now, the future of the station isn’t looking too bright, though. Current utility owners—Salt River Project, Arizona Public Service Co., NV Energy, and Tucson Electric Power—are leaving the plant behind to invest in coal’s more profitable (and less bad, but still bad!) cousin natural gas, instead. So you can’t blame the CAP for planning ahead. After all, natural gas would be cheaper on its customers, too.

Still, a couple investment firms are looking to buy the Navajo Generating Station, reported Arizona Central. However, the current utilities are giving buyers only until mid-May to finalize a deal. And if buyers see that the CAP is leaving the plant behind, well, they may lose interest.


Whatever feelings you have about dirty coal, the Hopi and Navajo are bearing the burden of this move away from it. Their desperate attempt to cling onto to coal isn’t wise for the planet or their health, but right now it’s all they’ve got to keep their community afloat and out of the throes of further poverty and unemployment. The Hopi experience a 30 percent poverty rate that’s more than twice that of the state’s overall. Almost half of the tribal population 16 and older was without employment in 2010, according to a demographic analysis.

This, of course, is true for rural coal communities across the United States that are dealing with the death of their industry. Think Appalachia, for example, where poverty is rampant in both mining and non-mining communities. As coal job opportunities disappear, it’s worsening. Rather than help these communities transition their workforces to new energy sources, President Donald Trump is keeping alive false hope that coal will see a miraculous revival.


The reality is coal will continue to decline, and the financial woes for communities tied to the industry will only heighten—at least until something (or someone) better comes along.

[h/t The Associated Press]

Updated 1:37 p.m.: This post has been updated to include a comment from the Hopi Tribe’s attorney, Colin Campbell, who is with the Osborn Maledon law firm.


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


Dense non aqueous phase liquid

If the Hopi need an alternative to coal, one word: helium. Helium exploration is going nuts. It’s used more than for blowing up party balloons, btw.

Review of helium production and potential in Arizona

And a breathless press release from prnewswire

Rare Earth Exploration utilizes new technology in the Arizona Helium Boom

Another Saudi Arabia of something:

The Holbrook Basin of northern Arizona is being hailed as the “Saudi Arabia of Helium” by those in the know who are close to the natural gas and oil exploration industries. While this has been a known fact for quite some time, helium drilling has been stagnant for the most part until recent helium prices that have sky-rocketed upwards of $125/mcf for standard helium. The problem has been the inability to separate and store helium for market without being in close proximity to a helium processing facility.

Where its at:

The Hopi reservation (surrounded by Navajo Nation) in northeast Arizona sits about smack dab on top of Black Mesa basin. They can always switch to coalbed methane to get off coal, if helium reserves are off the reservation.

Nothing goes well when you get Peabody Coal and the UMW join your fight. Here’s the mine complex called Black Mesa.

The mine:

and again:

The coal fired power plant:

Something, something 14,000 years of good stewardship.