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Opposition grows as plans move forward for Navajo power plant

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - Opponents of a coal-fired power plant proposed for the Navajo reservation are now petitioning the Navajo Nation Council to hold a special election regarding concerns around energy issues.

But as an environmental contingent collects petition signatures, the nation's Dine' Power Authority is moving ahead with plans to construct a 1,500-megawatt power plant that Navajo authorities say will deliver much-needed jobs and income to the large but struggling tribe.

It is not the first attempt to stall the project. The petition drive comes on the heels of a decision by the BIA to reopen the comment period for a Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the power plant.

The BIA has extended comments through Oct. 9 after heeding requests from opponents of the Desert Rock Energy Project, the name for the $3 billion coal-fired power plant project near Burnham, N.M., that would also require the expansion of BHP Billiton's Navajo Coal Co. mine.

Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. said at a September signing ceremony that the power plant would ''help the Navajo Nation move away from dependence.''

''The Desert Rock project is an important part of rebuilding the Navajo economy by providing needed jobs, paychecks and financial security for our people so that we can get back to standing on our own two feet,'' Shirley said at a ceremony held at the Navajo Nation fair in Window Rock.

At the ceremony, the Desert Rock Energy Co. - a subsidiary of the Houston-based Sithe Global Power created specifically for the project - announced the Fortune 500 company Fluor Corp. had been contracted to design and build the proposed plant.

In a corner stood a few opponents, including Elouise Brown, 45, the voice of Dooda Desert Rock, Navajo for ''No to Desert Rock.''

''I'm representing all the grandmas,'' she said. ''I feel like the whole people are behind me right now.''

Energy is a valuable resource in Navajo country - covering 27,000 square miles combined in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico - rich with uranium, natural gas, coal and water from aquifers running deep beneath the ground.

In 2003, Navajo authorities invited Sithe Global Power to build the plant with the Dine' Power Authority.

Brown said she and a handful of supporters have camped out near the Burnham, N.M., site of the proposed plant for the past nine months, leaving mostly to seek the support of ''chapter houses,'' the 110 individual Navajo communities. The tribal council voted to back the project, but most Navajos are divided.

Despite the recent contract, Brown insists the plant ''will not happen.''

Her group and others are collecting signatures at the two remaining Navajo Nation fairs in Shiprock, N.M., and Tuba City to request the council approve a special election to conduct a referendum regarding concerns around energy issues including power plants, water rights and clear-cutting of forests.

In the past, the tribal government banned uranium mining after Navajos were found to be dying from contamination. New Mexico now warns children and pregnant women against eating fish from the San Juan River on the northeastern end of the reservation because of mercury contamination.

The petition also states that large power plants should be banned.

''We are tired of the roadblocks and barriers being put up to our people's sovereignty,'' said Alfred Bennett of Dooda Desert Rock. ''Navajo leaders are taking corporate money to poison our land, degrade our air and deplete our water.''

Shirley was not available for comment by press time.

Navajo authorities have said the plant will bring 400 permanent jobs for Navajo workers and $50 million a year in property and income taxes, royalties and payments, including for water pumped from an aquifer that will be used to clean air pollutants.

The Desert Rock project would utilize about 4,500 acre-feet of water recycled within the plant, said Dirk Straussfeld, executive vice president of Sithe Global.

Pollution caused during delivery of coal would also be reduced, Straussfeld said, because the proposed plant would be constructed next to BHP Billiton's mine. Coal from the mine would be delivered by conveyor directly to a coal preparation facility near the plant, he said.

Construction will require 2,800 employees, most hired from the Navajo Nation, said Jim Lilly, vice president of Fluor's Power Group.

Among Fluor's high-profile contracts are a reported $500 million in federal contracts to work on Iraq's electrical system and more than $220 million through FEMA for temporary housing in post-Katrina New Orleans.

The southern California-based company is also leading reconstruction of the transportation lines beneath the World Trade Center and helping to build the first nuclear plants in the United States in two decades, Lilly said.

President Bush considers nuclear power a viable alternative to air-polluting coal-fired plants, advocating its use in his State of the Union address earlier this year.

But movement against coal-fired energy has been growing worldwide. Now, after a campaign led by Navajo activists, New Mexico is refusing to grant tax breaks to the proposed Desert Rock plant.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said in a statement the plant ''would be a significant new source of greenhouse gases and other pollution in the region.''

Straussfeld said the plant would have lower emission levels than any other coal-fired plant in the United States, with a 15 to 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and 80 percent reduction in mercury emissions.

But for those opposed to another coal-fired power plant, that's not enough. Each year, the Desert Rock plant would emit 12 million tons of carbon dioxide.

For Brown, the most pressing issue is health - namely, the risk of cancer from chemicals, she said.

''We're not just talking because we think cancer from these chemicals is going to happen - we know it. A lot of our people already have it,'' she said.

Brown said environmental concerns should also worry those living outside the vicinity of the proposed plant.

''We care about our people, and all people in general - all breathing species,'' she said. ''What is our Mother Earth going to look like when she is starving? When she is thirsty? When the air is dirty with pollution? They are pushing us toward a dangerous world.''

Construction of the Desert Rock power plant is scheduled to begin in 2008.

Authorities said the coal-fired power plant is expected to be generating electricity for 1 million homes by 2013.