Navajos consider benefits — and drawbacks — of a new power plant


SHIPROCK, New Mexico — Along Highway 64 between Shiprock and Farmington, drivers bold enough to crack a window and bask in the desert heat often get a whiff of tarry air — a clue that something industrial lurks beyond the sagebrush and sandstone. In fact, two coal-fired power plants sit behind ridges on either side of the road, less than 10 miles apart.

The Four Corners Power Plant and the San Juan Generating Station, long criticized as two of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the country, could soon have a new neighbor: the proposed Desert Rock Power Plant, slated for construction on the Navajo Reservation. If built, it would be the first major energy development in the region in over 30 years.

"We have the labor, the land, and the resources," says Steven Begay, general manager of the Diné Power Authority, which was formed 20 years ago to entice another coal-fired power plant onto the reservation. "The Navajo Nation is growing, so we have to think about our options."

Begay and other tribal officials see the $2.2 billion plant as a way to spur economic growth; unemployment hovers above 40 percent on the reservation. When the plant begins operation in 2010, says Begay, it will provide nearly 400 long-term jobs and generate about one-third of the tribe’s annual budget in royalties and leases.

But Sarah White, president of Dooda Desert Rock, one of several Navajo groups opposing the development, disagrees about what the coal-fired plant will bring to the tribe. "We won’t benefit from it. We’ll get the trash, the smoke and the dirt," says White, who lives 15 miles from the proposed site. "I really want to believe that this is something that will work, but when I look at … San Juan and Four Corners, I see nothing but broken promises."

Clearing the way

The new power plant is a joint project of the Diné Power Authority and Houston-based Sithe Global Power, which have already surveyed a 591-acre site for the plant and bought the grazing rights of six local ranchers.

Sithe and the power authority held off-reservation scoping meetings in cities such as Albuquerque, Phoenix and Farmington. They also visited Navajo chapter houses near the site, hoping to build support for the project. Instead, four chapters passed resolutions opposing it. Only one passed a resolution in support, but it did so with a sense of resignation: "This chapter understands that this is going to happen no matter what the people say," says Arthur Bavaro, Nenahnezad Chapter manager.

The resolutions are mostly symbolic: They have no direct impact on the plant approval process, which is handled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. If the plans are approved, construction could begin by next year.

Only 61 percent of Navajo homes currently have electricity, but that isn’t likely to change with the new power plant nearby. Connecting transmission lines to isolated dwellings is too expensive. Instead, the plant’s 1,500 megawatts of electricity will be sold to cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas.

"Navajos are going through hardship just so someone in Los Angeles can run their lights day in and day out," says Lori Goodman, a board member of Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, a Navajo environmental group.

Air quality and sovereignty

In July, nearly 250 activists held a rally outside the Navajo Nation council chambers, arriving both by foot and on horseback. They oppose the construction of the plant, concerned that it will worsen already-poor air quality and deplete underground water sources. The next day, Sithe and the Diné Power Authority gave the council delegates a lunch reception. "This will be the cleanest coal power plant that’s ever been proposed to be constructed," says Gus Eghneim, Sithe’s environmental advisor. The new plant’s emissions will be so low, he says, that they will be canceled out by emissions reductions planned for San Juan and Four Corners in the coming years.

Tribal officials also point out that things have changed in the last 30 years, since the previous generation of plants was built. Arrangements for power plants and coal leases on Navajo and Hopi land in the ’60s and ’70s were often one-sided transactions with dubious compensation for the tribes, whose interests were scarcely defended by non-Indian lawyers. Today, there are environmental review processes, and tribes are directly involved in negotiating benefits and royalties.

"We’ve learned, adapted, and adopted some of the practices of Western society, and we know how to use them to the benefit of the Nation," says Begay. He says that the tribe sought out Sithe Global to develop the power plant — an unprecedented move — and he hopes the tribe will choose to be a partial owner.

The Navajo Nation is also assuming regulatory control. In May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency turned over air-quality monitoring at the Four Corners plant and the Navajo Generating Station to its Navajo branch. And once Desert Rock is up and running, the Navajo agency will monitor that plant as well.

George Hardeen, spokesman for Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., says the transfer of regulatory duties is a huge step for sovereignty, and also brings the tribe revenue from air-quality permitting.

Meanwhile, activists both on and off the reservation worry that the tribe is setting troubling precedents. "What happens with energy policy here in the Four Corners can set the tone for the country," says Goodman. "In the name of sovereignty, they are opening up our land to energy companies."

The author is an HCN intern.