BURNHAM, N.M. (AP) – If you drive through here on the road that connects Gallup and Shiprock, you’ll see stretches of tawny dirt and a whole lot of empty.
It’s the place a Houston-based power company decided would be perfect for a huge, twin-tower 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant. The company called it Desert Rock, a name that embodies desolation.
But if you’re from here, you don’t see empty. You see the place where your grandparents made their sheep camp and where you ran around as a boy and where all your relatives still live. You don’t call it Desert Rock. You call it by a name that translates from Navajo as “water for the rams.”
“It’s not this desolate, uninhabited area. We’ve been out here for years,” Dailan Long says.
“It was invasion of a territory that had meaning for our people but was meaningless for other people,” Long says of the choice of Burnham for the project, which would take millions of tons of locally mined coal and yield $50 million in royalty payments and taxes to the Navajo Nation government, which is a partner.
The fight over the proposed Desert Rock plant has turned into an epic battle that has come to involve state, federal and tribal governments and a whole lot of lawyers.
It has also come to involve Long, who was on a path to medical school a few thousand miles away when he heard about Desert Rock and felt a stab at his heart that brought him home.
Long said he found out about Desert Rock purely by accident when he was looking for a topic for a research paper for an environmental justice class in his sophomore year at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
He called home and asked, “Is there a power plant going in there?”
No one had heard of Desert Rock. “We had no idea what was going on, completely out of the loop,” he says.
That changed quickly. His Grandma Lucy and Grandma Sarah got busy organizing against the plant, forming a group whose name in the Navajo language means “No Desert Rock.” They encouraged Long to pitch in.
Long switched his major from pre-med to Native American studies and, while he pursued his degree back East, he used the phone and e-mail to help their resistance efforts and to work with a long-standing Navajo environmental group, Diné CARE. Other Dartmouth students lazed at home or on tropical beaches during Christmas break, but Long came home and camped out as part of a community blockade of the road into the proposed power plant site.
Long wasn’t an instant critic of the plant. He was raised in a family that was supported by power plant jobs. But as he studied the potential effects, he became convinced the plant would be bad for air and water in the region and an assault on the land where his mother’s family has lived for generations.
“I realized that Desert Rock was a case study of energy production at the expense of unknowledgeable people,” he says.
A coalition of groups opposing the project has managed to delay rights of way for the transmission lines that would carry the power to homes in Arizona and Nevada. And the Environmental Protection Agency handed the groups a big victory when it asked to review the air quality permit it had issued for the plant.
Long has organized community meetings, appeared at rallies and public hearings and on radio shows and written critiques of the project.
He also took part in an alternative-energy study, which concluded that the Navajo Nation could benefit from wind and solar power. These days, he’s going from one chapter house to another, explaining the study and asking communities to throw their support behind alternative energy.
After he graduated in 2007, Long moved home with his parents and siblings and returned to the life he knew as a kid, herding sheep, hauling water and wood a world away from the Ivy League. Unlike some of his Dartmouth friends who have gone to jobs in hedge funds and to medical school and law school, Long is enjoying the peace and quiet of reservation life.
“When my friends are traveling to Paris and they say, ‘You should come meet us there,’ I’m like, ‘I can barely get home on my gas tank.’”
Even though he plans to apply to medical schools, Long says he’ll stay committed to the Desert Rock issue until it is resolved.
“I feel that the community has called me to be here and has entrusted me to do this work.”
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