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Diné CARE, Environmental Groups Sue Interior Over Navajo Coal Plant

A Navajo environmental group has filed suit over continuing operations at the coal-fired Four Corners Power Plant on the eastern Navajo Nation near Farmington, New Mexico.

The suit underscores a longstanding complaint by Navajo activists alleging that the Navajo Nation took on a bad deal in 2013 when it bought the Navajo Mine, which supplies the plant’s coal.

RELATED: Diné CARE Opposing ‘Bad Business Decision’ That Is the Navajo Mine

The Navajo grassroots group Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Diné CARE) filed the complaint on April 20 in federal district court in Arizona, along with the Western Environmental Law Center, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and other groups against the U.S. Department of the Interior and several other federal agencies. The suit claims that Interior failed to adequately consider impacts to air, water, land, people and endangered fish when it approved, in July 2015, a 25-year extension for the 1,540-megawatt plant and thus violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 

RELATED: Environmentalists Plan to Sue Feds for Approving Navajo Coal Mine Ops

“For a half century, the Four Corners region has borne the weight of the coal-fired electricity system that illuminates the cities of the American Southwest,” the complaint reads. “The surrounding communities, long opposed to coal development, suffer elevated levels of lung disease. Populations of native fish in the San Juan River, poisoned by toxic mercury and selenium, are on the brink of extinction.”

This is not the first lawsuit the groups have filed over the coal-mining complex; a separate lawsuit in 2013 resulted in a second round of environmental review by the Office of Surface Mining for operations at the Navajo Mine, the sole supplier of coal to the Four Corners plant. Carol Davis of Diné CARE said the time has come to jump ship on a faltering coal market, and look toward renewables. The Interior Department’s decision, she said, misses a key opportunity.

“The rapid decline of global coal economics necessitates a hard look at solution-oriented growth for the Navajo Nation and Navajo communities, with reparations for over 50 years of undervalued resource flow off our lands,” Davis said in a statement. “Approving 25 more years of coal mining and burning at the Navajo Mine and Four Corners Power Plant blindly assumes profitable operations when in reality they are suspect at best, and places the Navajo Nation at great economic risk with the cost of owning and operating Navajo Mine with full responsibility for eventual reclamation.”

But the Navajo Nation has long said that the mine purchase, and ongoing operations at the mine, maintain much-needed jobs and a steady revenue source for Navajo people. Erny Zah is the spokesman for the Navajo Transitional Energy Company (NTEC), the company that was set up to oversee the mine’s purchase in late 2013 from former owners BHP Billiton. He said taxes and royalties from the mine by itself contributed $35 billion in 2015 to the Navajo Nation’s general fund. That doesn’t include additional funds provided by the Four Corners Power Plant. Zah said the two mines and the two power plants on the Navajo Nation—the Navajo Mine, the Kayenta Mine, the Four Corners Power Plant and the Navajo Generating Station—contribute about 60 percent of the general fund. The general fund was $175 million for fiscal year 2016, which started in October. The mine and the power plant together employ about 800 people, 80 percent of whom are Native Americans.

“Things are looking good for us,” Zah said of operations at the mine. “We have a new coal sale agreement set to begin in July. In turn, that will help us to contribute more to the Navajo Nation. We expect to maintain a production level of 5.5 to 6 million tons per year, consistent with last year, and what we expected when units one, two and three were shut down.”

Three units of the five units at the plant were shut down in 2013 to comply with regional pollution limits imposed by the EPA.

As for the lawsuit, Zah said NTEC is not listed as a defendant, so his organization will be watching to see how the case progresses.

 “We support the Department of Interior,” he said. “We think the process to complete the Environmental Impact Statement was very thorough.”