Environmental groups are threatening to sue federal agencies over the feds’ recent approval of ongoing operations at the Navajo Mine, which supplies the notoriously polluting Four Corners Power Plant in the eastern Navajo Nation.
Local activist groups including Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Diné CARE), the San Juan Citizens Alliance, and Amigos Bravos have teamed up with the Western Environmental Law Center, Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club in filing a 60-day notice of suit, which is a procedural requirement before suing under the Endangered Species Act. The groups are alleging violations of the ESA and other federal laws, complaining primarily that the Office of Surface Mining and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to fully consider the effects of the mine’s operations on nearby wildlife, ecosystems and human health.
The plant and mine operate alongside the San Juan River, home to two endangered fish species.
“The facts presented in the Service’s biological opinion make clear that continued operation is incompatible with endangered fish recovery and that it is time to transition away from obsolete and polluting activities at the Navajo Mine and Four Corners Power Plant,” the groups wrote in their notice, issued on December 21. “This is necessary to assure the survival and recovery of the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker. It is also necessary to protect the health and well-being of the people and communities of the Four Corners region.”
The Navajo Nation purchased the mine in late 2013 from an international company, BHP Billiton. At the time, the deal was attractive partly because it allowed production to continue at the mine beyond 2016, when BHP’s lease would have expired.
Colleen Cooley, with Diné CARE, said she and other Navajo activists are tired of the downsides of coal, and they’re pushing for a transition to renewable energy.
“We’ve already dealt with so many of these impacts for 50 years,” she said. “For many years, energy companies have been coming in, and in some cases I don’t think they have abided by the federal regulations. They’ll continue to do it unless we speak up.”
But Erny Zah, communications director for the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, pointed out that the Navajo Nation purchased the Navajo Mine last summer with a plan to preserve Navajo jobs at the mine and plant, and to use revenues to invest in renewables. It’s going to take time, he said—and a lawsuit only stymies the plan.
“It’s Navajos trying to take food off of Navajos’ tables. In our traditional way of doing things, where does that fit into our tradition teachings? It’s just a point of curiosity,” he said. “This isn’t some company coming in. Those are our people. These are our relatives who live there and work there. We’re a Navajo-owned company.”
Zah said NTEC recently opted to acquire a seven percent ownership in the Four Corners Power Plant, in a deal that will be finalized this summer. The acquisition stands to generate additional revenues, he said, 10 percent of which must go toward renewable energy—and it puts the Navajo Nation in an unprecedented position of power.
“For generations, Navajo hosted power plants and other resources that always belonged to others. We weren’t even the landlords,” he said. “Now here we are, turning that corner. For the first time, we own our own coalmine. That in itself is an accomplishment for the Navajo Nation. Now we have the opportunity to own a power plant. It puts the dialogue with the power companies in a different context; we become partners with them.”
Cooley worries that the transition to renewables isn’t happening fast enough. She also worries that NTEC isn’t doing well financially, and the outlook for coal is bleak.
“We already advocated for not purchasing the mine two years ago, and they still did it,” she said. “We’re in debt. We see the Navajo Nation struggling to pay off those loans.”
Zah says NTEC’s position is better than that.
“We have one loan, and we are working to secure an outside loan to pay the remainder of the balance from BHP Billiton,” he said. “This is an investment and an opportunity to build capacity for future energy projects. This not a get-rich-quick scheme. We are an up-and-coming company that will be profitable.”
Zah added that in 2014, NTEC paid about $37 million to the Navajo Nation in taxes and royalties.