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Coal economy fading, complicating life in Navajo Nation

February 06, 2021

High Country News:

On a chilly December morning in northern Arizona, near the town of Page, Nicole Horseherder stood beside a barbed-wire fence, waiting for the smokestacks of the Navajo Generating Station to fall. The coal-fired power plant, just a mile away, towered against the backdrop of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and a cloudless blue sky.

As they waited, Horseherder, a Diné (Navajo) environmental activist, and her husband, Marshall Johnson, spoke into a phone camera trained on the power plant. They were livestreaming the demolition on Facebook. Horseherder’s hands were nestled in the pockets of her long tan wool jacket, its tassels swaying at her ankles. She and Johnson switched between English and Navajo as they spoke to the tens of thousands of people who had tuned in to watch.

The Navajo Generating Station, which opened in 1974 and operated for decades before shuttering in 2019, was the largest coal-fired power plant in the Western United States. It supplied electricity to millions of customers in Arizona, California, and Nevada, using coal from Black Mesa, where Horseherder lives. As she spoke, she acknowledged the economic benefits the plant had brought to the region. “But it has also had devastating impacts to the environment and to some of our most valuable elements of life, such as water,” she said, leaning into the microphone. 

For many families, it was a tragedy to see coal jobs disappear. Last August, Peabody laid off its workers, even though many could have transitioned to reclamation work — jobs that, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, would have kept approximately 200 people employed for at least two years at the Kayenta Mine. Others were more fortunate; the Salt River Project, or SRP, the company that operated the Navajo Generating Station, offered to relocate all of its workers from the power plant. The company has re-hired more than 300 people at other, often far-away, facilities. 

[Jessica Kutz]

More: The fight for an equitable energy economy for the Navajo Nation

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