Black Mesa Trust
Tó Nizhóní Ání
At 8:30 a.m. on December 18, explosions rocked the base of the first of the three massive smokestacks that have dominated the horizon on the western edge of the Navajo Nation for a half century. In slow motion, the towering stack came crashing down in a thundering cloud of dust, followed in succession by the other two as part of Salt River Project’s demolition of the largest coal-burning power plant in the West.
The demolition of the three 775-foot-tall smokestacks at Navajo Generating Station (NGS) is hugely symbolic. It marks the close of a painful chapter for thousands of Navajo and Hopi whose lives and families have been impacted by coal. Until it closed last November, the 2,400 MW power plant generated electricity for Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and other cities, insultingly bypassing Navajo and Hopi homes and businesses. The plant also pumped the massive amounts of water that has allowed Phoenix to grow into the fifth largest city in America, all while thousands of Navajo and Hopi homes also lack access to running water.
“The demolition of the smokestacks at Navajo Generating Station is a solemn event,” said Nicole Horseherder, executive director of the Navajo grassroots group Tó Nizhóní Ání, which has worked for 20 years to move the Navajo Nation past coal. “It's a reminder of decades of exploitation subsidized by cheap coal and water from the Navajo and Hopi. Coal provided jobs and revenue to the Navajo Nation, but Navajo ranchers and farmers, who depended on the land that was mined and the water that fed the mine and power plant, shouldered the cost. While miners were provided safety gear as they worked, hundreds more living near the coal industrial complex had to endure asthma and other health issues without any recourse.
“That chapter is now closed,” Horseherder continued. “But the work is far from over. We have to make sure Kayenta Mine is cleaned up. We have to secure water and electricity for many communities that lack access to both. We have to replace the millions of dollars in lost coal revenue from the abrupt closure of the plant and coal mine. And we have to make sure investment flows back into building a more sustainable economy for the Navajo and Hopi.”
“We’re hopeful that this marks the continuation of our transformation into a sustainable economy that is built on fundamental Navajo and Hopi respect for air, land and water and that will have direct, measurable benefits for our communities, not exploit them,” said Carol Davis, executive director of the Navajo grassroots group Diné CARE. “We hope the incoming Biden Administration follows through on commitments it has made to Native American tribes and assists us in addressing the many problems left behind by 50 years of over-dependence on coal.”
“So far, the federal government has failed to meet even its most bsic trust responsibilities to the Navajo and Hopi,” said Ben Nuvamsa, a former chairman of the Hopi Tribe. “The massive coal pits and piles that stretch across thousands of acres at Kayenta Mine remain as they were when the mine closed more than a year ago. Billions of gallons of pristine water were pumped from the Navajo Aquifer and I’m not sure if it will recharge in our lifetime. There must be accountability for cleaning up this mess, for restoring vital groundwater that was taken from us and for returning the countless artifacts and burial sites that were removed for the mine.”
For the Navajo and Hopi who live in the shadow of Navajo Generating Station, and the now-closed coal mine that fed it, this will not be a time for celebration, however. The demolition is the close of a painful, decades-long chapter for thousands of Navajo and Hopi whose lives and families have been impacted by coal. For them, the demolition is a time to recognize the ongoing harm that Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta Mine have caused, and more importantly the opening of new chapter for correcting a lifetime of wrongs through things like mine reclamation, securing water and electricity for many communities that lack access to both, replacing millions of dollars in lost coal revenue, investing in a more sustainable economy for both tribes, and the repatriation of countless cultural artifacts and disturbed burial sites that were removed in the name of generating electricity from coal.
Trump’s failure to save the coal industry
Keeping Navajo Generating Station operating past 2019 was a signature piece of Trump’s efforts to revive the coal industry, and his administration tried desperately through various tactics to rescue the plant. He failed to do so – even though the federal government owns 24% of Navajo Generating Station through the Bureau of Reclamation — and the plant burned its last pile of coal in November 2019. The demolition will punctuate the crumbling realities of coal as its biggest champion leaves office, also defeated.
Biden administration – prioritizing clean energy, climate, and sovereignty
Meanwhile, President-elect Biden has made clean energy and climate protection central parts of his agenda. And he has proposed elevating issues of tribal rights and sovereignty to new levels. The demolition will occur against a backdrop of profound transition for the Navajo and Hopi tribes. Both Navajo Generating Station and the coal mine that supplied its coal are located on tribal land, and their closures have hit the tribes hard economically. Yet both are still embracing a fragile transition to post-coal economies, as spelled out in the Navajo Nation’s Sunrise Proclamation. As an added layer of context, two of the top contenders for Secretary of the Dept. of Interior, the parent agency of the Bureau of Reclamation, are Native Americans.
Jobs needed now more than ever
According to one recent study, failure to begin cleaning up Kayenta Mine is costing the Navajo and Hopi hundreds of jobs that could reemploy laid off coal miners. Two former Hopi Chairmen, along with Congressman Grijalva, have urged DOI’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) to intervene in the re-permitting process for the mine, expressing a deepening sense of alarm at Peabody Energy’s failure to fully meet its cleanup obligations. However, to date, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has been dragging its feet and is even considering an application by Peabody to delay major portions of reclamation work for two to four more years.
How the landscape has changed
The demolition also is a potent symbol of how dramatically the energy landscape has shifted in a few short years. Several months prior to announcing in February 2017 that they would close Navajo Generating Station by the end of 2019, its utility owners were in federal court arguing for the right to run the plant into the 2040s. Fast-forward just three years and Arizona’s two biggest utilities — Arizona Public Service and Tucson Electric Power— have not only walked away from Navajo Generating Station but also committed to completely abandoning all of their coal assets and striving toward 100% carbon-free electricity. On top of that, the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates the utilities, also has established a 100% carbon-free goal by 2050.
Where is the transition funding?
However, much still remains to be done to ensure a Just and Equitable transition for the Navajo and Hopi. While APS recently proposed $144 million to support affected tribes and surrounding communities in their transition away from coal, other utilities have not yet stepped up to offer transition funding. After decades of profiting off of the use of Navajo and Hopi resources, Navajo Generating Station owners all have a responsibility to support these tribes. Navajo and Hopi community leaders recently issued a report card that evaluated the state of the transition — you can access their statements here and more information on the areas of transition at: www.NavajoEquitableEconomy.org.
Water and drought
Water and drought have taken on even more importance against the backdrop of the Navajo Generating Station closure and COVID pandemic. On the former, the closure of the plant last year freed up 34,000 acre-feet of Upper Basin Colorado River water that was used for plant operations every year — enough to sustain tens of thousands of tribal households. It is sitting unused at a time when historic drought is forcing many Navajo and Hopi to abandon their traditional culture. For all intents and purposes, that water must be used on the Navajo Nation, which has a right to it, but little to no progress has been made in conceptualizing how to put it to use, let alone building the infrastructure necessary to deliver it. On the latter, groundwater pumping by the two massive coal mines on Black Mesa over the past half century decimated the main aquifer that provides drinking and irrigation water for the Navajo and Hopi. Thousands of homes already lacked access to running water, and the depletion of the aquifer has made access even more difficult, to the point that many correlate the severity of the COVID outbreak on the Navajo Nation to the hardships caused by the difficulties in getting water for even basic hygiene.