40 Years of Coal-Burning Power Plants on Navajo Land
Some hardships in life can be met through strong will and hard work. As a Navajo, I think of the many thousands of families on our reservation in New Mexico and Arizona who’ve long lived without access to electricity service or running water, and still do.
But now there’s a very different kind of hardship facing families in our region: increasing numbers of children and elders suffering from asthma and other respiratory problems.
I first started working in health care on the Navajo reservation 40 years ago, as an interpreter helping residents communicate with health workers. Back then, asthma and respiratory illnesses were not common. That was before what we call the “big stoves,” the coal-burning power plants, had been with us for too long.
Four Corners Power Plant near Farmington, New Mexico, started up in the mid-1960s. San Juan Generating Station began operating nearby in 1973, and Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona started burning coal a year after that. Today, we count four decades that contaminants from these three big coal plants have been pouring into the air in our region.
I still work in health care on the Navajo Nation, and today asthma and respiratory problems are very common. Today we have Head Start teachers asking for training to administer asthma medications to three- and four-year-olds. Today we have respiratory issues as a top reason for local hospital emergency room visits in a very rural area.
The utility and government interests that have benefited from these three plants for so long have never undertaken a comprehensive study on their health impacts. I imagine they’re afraid what they’d document.
It’s well known that sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from coal plant smokestacks cause respiratory problems and are ingredients in forming ozone and fine particle pollution that can both cause asthma attacks and permanent damage to the lungs. It’s also no secret that the three coal plants in our region together dump about 100,000 tons a year of nitrogen and sulfur pollution into our air. And then there are the cancer-causing carcinogens and neurotoxins as well—the mercury, lead, chromium, and nickel to name a few.
While the contamination has been steady, times have changed a lot in the 40 years since the coal plants first came onto our land. Modern air pollution controls are available. The Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to be enforcing the Clean Air Act. And cleaner sources of energy than coal, such as solar and wind, are ready.
Unfortunately it’s far from clear whether the changing times will lead to enough changes to help our children breathe easier. EPA has required strong new pollution controls for nitrogen oxide at San Juan Generating Station, but plant owner PNM is resisting mightily instead of planning for the smarter move to cleaner energy sources instead.
At Navajo Generating Station, where there’s still been no action from EPA, there’s an all-out lobbying campaign by the coal industry and its political allies to stop pollution reduction requirements cold. From the Department of Interior to the Navajo Nation President to the plant’s owner Salt River Project, all have eagerly issued economic reports designed to perpetuate the coal plant while completely neglecting the potential for a transition to cleaner sources or the health benefits or economic benefits that transition would bring.
U.S. Senator Jon Kyl from Arizona has even gone so far as to try to deviously guarantee more than 30 more years for the polluting Navajo Generating Station coal plant and its mine as part of a Lower Colorado River water settlement bill he’s pushing.
A four-year-old suffering from asthma doesn’t have a seat at the table where U.S. Senators, Obama Administration officials, Navajo Nation government, and industry power-brokers are going to decide on the future of these coal plants and their pollution -- but she should. She’s facing a hardship she can’t overcome on her own, and I pray someone will step forward to help her.
Adella Begaye, a Registered Nurse, is president of the nonprofit organization Dine’ Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Dine’ CARE).