Navajo Activists Spearhead Energy Transformation in the Four Corners Area
On the Navajo reservation, pollution from coal production is allegedly causing respiratory illnesses, depleting local aquifers and contaminating drinking and agricultural water with chemicals.
“The coal mining is like a knife cutting into the liver of our mother land,” Wahleah Johns, the solar project coordinator for the Black Mesa Water Coalition (BMWC), told New America Media. “The liver is what keeps the whole body healthy. The coal mining is why our people are getting sick.”
As Ruben Hernandez explained in the article "An Energy Revoultion on the Navajo Reservation" in New America Media, Navajo activists are driven by a cultural imperative to protect the environment and serve as stewards of the land, harnessing their natural resources, like the area’s scorching sun and thrashing winds.
To bolster their efforts, Navajo activists are seeking allies in Arizona’s expanding Hispanic population with a growing political influence. Latinos comprise more than 40 percent of residents in both Phoenix and Tucson, the latest Census figures state. Jihan Gearon, executive director of the BMWC—the organization leading the way to build ties with these Latino-led environmental groups—said that while immigration has been a priority among Hispanic groups, concerns about clean energy and economic parity are becoming key issues.
Generating clean energy allows tribes to create jobs while preserving their environment. Among its projects underway, the Navajo Nation is building 48 turbines for the Big Boquillas Wind Project, located 80 miles west of Flagstaff, New Mexico. Weather-measuring towers are helping the tribe to determine other places to develop wind sites and solar projects in the Four Corners area.
But their noble intentions and juxtaposed by the economic benefits the tribe reaps from big corporations that pay royalties for using Navajo land.
The Navajo Generating Station (NGS), a coal fire plant in Page, Arizona, is operated by a group of six regional utilities including the Salt River Project (SRP), one of Arizona’s largest utilities. From 1987 to 2010, the NGS and the nearby Kayenta Mine, which provides roughly eight million tons of coal per year to the NGS, contributed nearly $1.3 billion to the Navajo and Hopi economies, or $50 million annually, according to a recent National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) report. The 120-page federal report released in January 2012 reveals that wages and benefits paid to Native American employees at the NGS amounted to approximately $52 million per year for those 23 years. The average hourly wage paid at the power plant is $35 per hour—twice the average wage paid in the county, according to Bureau of Labor statistics. The NREL report also notes that 83 percent of the NGS workforce, about 450 employees, is Navajo. With the unemployment rate exceeding 50 percent on the reservation, these jobs are extremely valuable, SRP and some tribal government officials argue.
Local activists, however, maintain the economic benefits of the coal plant and mine do not substantiate the dire health impact on the community. Still, Paul Ostapuk, SRP environmental manager of the NGS, said officials “haven’t seen the data to support those claims” that pollution from the coal fire plant is making residents sick. Ostapuk also warns: “Keep in mind that solar and wind is more expensive and less cost efficient right now.”
But the greater picture involves tribal sovereignty in additional to adhering to traditonal values.
“We need to create our own businesses and control our destiny,” says Ben Shelly, the Navajo Nation president.