Ruben Hernandez

On the reservation

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Latino Perspectives writer, Ruben Hernandez, visited the Navajo and Hopi lands on an environmental journalism fellowship from the New America Media news service. Here is his special report. 


Kayenta, Arizona. When you flip on a light switch or open a faucet for water, you are probably unaware that your electricity and water come directly from coal mines and aquifers on the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona. 

 Millions of city residents in Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas and Los Angeles don’t know, and likely don’t care, that Navajo natural resources from the Black Mesa coal mine near Kayenta are used to generate electricity for their city lights. 

In addition, this electricity is sent to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation facilities, which use it to power the Central Arizona Project that delivers water to our household taps, as well as to irrigate the fields where the vegetables and fruits we eat are grown.

However, some Navajo Reservation residents and activists do care. They claim they are getting sick from breathing the hazy air that drifts across their land from the smokestacks at the Navajo Generating Station (NGR) near Page.

Activists and their allies also worry about the depletion of the Reservation’s aquifers and the Colorado River water they need for their families to drink and for growing their own crops. 

These fears have motivated the formation of coalitions among Black Mesa area residents, local grassroots groups, such as the Black Mesa Water Coalition (BMWC), and national organizations, such as the Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust and Indigenous Environmental Network. 

These groups and others are working together to develop a vision and action plan for a sustainable future.

Seeking Latino allies

Now the Navajo activists are uniting with Latino organizations, such as Puente and Tonatierra in Phoenix and similar advocacy groups in Tucson. Latinos comprise 41 percent of Phoenix city residents and 41.6 percent of Tucson residents. Latinos comprise 34.1 percent of the population in the Phoenix metropolitan area, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. 

“In December or January we have a mural project planned in Phoenix to draw attention to our situation,” says Jihan Gearon, executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition. 

She adds that their long-term strategy involves engaging the Latino community to use their growing political power to achieve some major changes for the Navajo people. 

While the immigration issue gave Latinos the motivation to vote in record numbers in the 2012 election – putting many swing states with high Latino populations in President Barack Obama’s win column –  Native American activists believe that their issues concerning clean energy and economic parity on the Reservation will become the hot issues of the future for Latino voters in Arizona and nationwide. 

Navajo coalition members realize that the time is right to seize opportunities to make the transition from fossil fuels to cleaner electricity-generating sources, such as solar and wind.

The potential of generating clean energy from renewable resources presents tribes with an opportunity to create jobs, as well as to protect the natural and cultural resources on reservation lands. 

According to a report from the National Tribal Environmental Council and Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, Southwest tribal lands have the potential to produce 17.6 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity annually from solar power, about 4.5 times the total amount of electricity generated in the United States in 2004. 

The coalition is introducing a new concept they call the “Just Transition Plan” to the Navajo Tribal Council and to residents in small town meetings in Navajo communities.

The “Just Transition Plan” focuses on the interests of the Black Mesa community members instead of those of the big corporations. The blueprint calls for the development of solar and wind energy facilities to replace coal-fueled power plants. 

“Our goal is to not just shut down the coal mines,” says Wahleah Johns, the Black Mesa solar project coordinator for the BMWC, as we drive in a van toward the Black Mesa coal mine on winding, washboard-rutted dirt roads. “We understand that there has to be a transition to something more sustainable.”

The elevations on the Navajo reservation range from 3,900 to 6,500 feet. The stark geography consists of multi-hued flats, buttes and mesas dotted with juniper and pine woodlands. Winds brisk enough to snatch baseball caps off heads sweep from the hills through the flat valleys.  

Johns says that the corporations pay millions of dollars in royalties to the Navajo tribal government to use the tribe’s natural resources. “The tribal government benefits, but it doesn’t get to the people. We want to create a new model of economic development for community members.” 

She adds that sites on Navajo lands are being evaluated for their future wind and solar energy potential. Lands on, or near, the coal mine that have been reconditioned into landfills with grass after the coal extraction can be used as locations for solar panels to generate electricity. Johns says the reclaimed land is no good for grazing cattle and sheep because the animals get sick. Moreover, the landfills already have roads leading to them. 

“We want to create a model in which a solar developer partners with the people for solar panels, and the people earn money by selling the extra electricity they don’t use to the utilities,” Johns says. 

The Navajo tribal government is also looking at developing alternative energy. Eighty miles west of Flagstaff, the Navajo Nation is developing the Big Boquillas Wind Project, with the construction of 48 turbines. 

The tribe also has weather-measuring towers in Cameron and are considering another wind site and possible solar-utility project in the Four Corners area.

Tale of colliding values

Gearon and Johns say there is an important, non-economic imperative that drives their passion to end the coal mining and eventually close down the Navajo Generating Station. 

As Native people with a deep love and spiritual connection to the land and Mother Earth, they need to get back to being stewards of the resources provided by the sun and wind, they say.

High economic stakes

The stakes are high in the struggle between old and new energy sources, old and new economic development models, and the often colliding values of modern capitalism and Native American spiritual values and their special relationship to their lands.

There’s also big money involved. 

The coalition of environmental activists has convinced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to order the Navajo Generating Station to install $1 billion worth of pollution-filtering devices or shut down.The NGS is operated by a group of regional utilities and SRP.

The region could suffer a big economic hit as a result of NGS’ closure

A National Renewable Energy Laboratory report found that, in the past 23 years, the Peabody Coal Co. paid about $50 million annually to the Navajo and nearby Hopi tribes, totaling nearly $1.3 billion. 

In 2010, the total tribal payments for coal royalties were $34.4 million and coal bonuses for the two tribes totaled $5 million. 

The same report found that wages and benefits paid to the 400 Navajo employees was $52 million annually. The average NGS job pays about $35/hour, twice the rate of other jobs in the county. On a reservation where unemployment runs close to 50 percent, these jobs are sorely needed, say tribal government and SRP officials. 

Environmental activists counter that 400 jobs in a tribe with 174,000 members is insignificant. 

A recent study by the William Seidman Research Institute at Arizona State University found that the power plant and mine would have a $20.5 billion impact on Arizona through 2044.

Paul Astapuk, SRP general manager of the NGS in Page, said that the three electricity generating units there send out power for millions people served by the utility companies in the plant’s consortium. He said that, in the summer of 2011, Valley households and businesses set a record for electricity use. These consumers and millions of other residents using the electricity NGS sends wouldn’t like it if their power were reduced.

“We are under certain threats that could shut down this plant prematurely,” Astapuk says, referring to EPA pressure to install more pollution controls.  

The NGS spokesman said that SRP has invested in renewable energy sources like wind and solar. 

However, Astapuk says, “Keep in mind that solar and wind is more expensive and less cost efficient right now.” 

He further notes that these two kinds of power generation also impact land and wildlife. Large amounts of land are needed for hundreds of solar panels and wind towers with whirling blades. Some reservation residents have already warned that the wind tower blades will kill birds that fly into them, he says.

There is probably no easy solution to the face-off between reservation residents and environmentalists in Navajo land. 

However, in Arizona, the great potential of tribal land to generate clean energy means that the tribe can take a big role in providing global warming solutions. It also has the opportunity to mark its own path to future energy independence.

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