December 18, 2017 Read More →

U.S. Coal Industry Fails Tribal Communities Across American Southwest

NBC News:

Over the last century, in particular, American settlers and institutions urged the Navajo into livestock ranching, land development and uranium mining, only to end or curtail those industries, leaving the tribe to manage the disastrous fallout.

Now, history’s pendulum appears to have swung again. A coal business, dropped into the Navajo heartland a half century ago, is staggering. Electric utilities around America are converting to cheaper natural gas. And the world is turning to cleaner power sources, like wind and solar.

The utility that operates the Navajo Generating Station announced at the start of 2017 that it would turn off the plant by December 2019. The shutdown would almost certainly drag down the power plant’s lone coal supplier, the Kayenta Mine, which has no other customers.

News of those twin blows has rattled hundreds of Navajo workers who would lose their jobs, sent politicians from the Arizona state house to President Trump’s Interior Department scrambling for ways to keep the plant in business, and thrown the far-flung Navajo Nation and the neighboring Hopi Reservation into a tempest. Loved or hated, coal has been a mainstay of life here for decades, even as it has fouled the air and scarred the land that the tribe holds sacred.

On one side, tribal supporters of the power plant and the vast open-pit coal mine that feeds it spent most of the last year fighting furiously to stave off the closure. They hired a top investment banking firm to search for new owners and lobbied in Washington — where coal’s self-proclaimed No. 1 fan occupies the Oval Office — for a political solution.

On the other side, Navajo opponents cheered what they they saw as end times for an industry they say never delivered the economic bounty promised in Indian Country and was blamed for damaging the health and the environment of impoverished residents. The Navajo plant and others in the region laid a persistent haze from the Grand Canyon to Arches National Park in Utah to the Pine Mountain Wilderness in central Arizona. And coal operations siphoned away a vast amount of water in a region that desperately needs more to grow and diversify the economy.

Peabody Energy, the giant multinational company that operates the mine, said it still expects to find a new power plant operator that will continue burning its coal. But the plant operators note that they soon must begin the engineering and planning to take NGS apart and seem to hold little hope the operation can keep going.

The stakes are unusually high. The shutdown of the mine and the power plant — known by its acronym, NGS — would deprive the Navajo reservation of its two largest non-governmental employers. The 43-year-old generating station and its sister coal mine employ more than 700 people, many at salaries of more than $100,000 a year, a small fortune in the depressed economy of Northern Arizona. Another 2,300 jobs in the region are linked to the two major employers.

The financial stimulus also enriches the Navajo Nation, with NGS lease payments and coal royalties contributing roughly one-fifth of the tribe’s general-fund budget. For the government of the Hopi reservation — entirely surrounded by the vast Navajo lands — reliance on coal is even greater. Nearly 87 percent of this year’s Hopi general budget of $14.6 million is expected to come from coal-related royalties and fees.

“How much of that electric line goes to my people?” asked Russell Begaye, the president of the Navajo Nation. “Zero. We don’t get any power from this.”

The loss of those funds is viewed as disruptive to the Navajo government and debilitating for the Hopi. Services ranging from police patrols, to food banks, to health care for the elderly could be slashed if the coal money disappears, tribal members predict. Those services help people already operating on the margins. Half of adult Navajos do not have a job. About 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

“Our leaders in the past saw this as something we would have for 100 years,” Navajo President Russell Begaye said of the coal money. “Now we see that is not the case.”

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