Navajo Nation bets on coal

A tribe digs into a dying industry.

  • Navajo Keanu Israel loosens coal in a pile at the public load-out of the Kayenta Mine in Black Mesa, Arizona. He and his brother were helping their grandparents haul a truckload to heat their home.

    Brian Leddy
  • Draglines that operate day and night at the Navajo Mine kick up dust onto nearby homes on the Navajo Nation near Fruitland, New Mexico.

    Brian Leddy
  • Duane "Chili" Yazzie, Shiprock Chapter president, is a Navajo "traditionalist" who has been vocal in protesting the tribe's purchase of the mine from BHP Billiton.

    Brian Leddy
  • Four Corners Power Plant which may stay online for another two decades, thanks to new emissions control equipment.

    Brian Leddy
  • Lloyd Israel and his two grandsons, Keanu and Garrick, sort coal at the public load-out facility, part of the Kayenta Mine in Black Mesa, Arizona. The family uses coal to heat their home.

    Brian Leddy
  • Coal miner Marie Justice has worked to protect the coal industry – and jobs – on the Navajo Nation.

    Brian Leddy
  • The Anasazi Inn near the Kayenta Mine, where coal miners often stop for a meal after work. Multiple generations of owner Patricia Manygoats' family have worked in the coal industry.

    Brian Leddy
  • Homes near the San Juan Generating Station, just off the reservation near Farmington, New Mexico.

    Brian Leddy
  • Ronald Begay sells coal on the side of Highway 118 in Gallup, New Mexico. Begay makes the trip to Black Mesa, Arizona, to purchase coal several times a week, which he then sells at several locations on or near the reservation.

    Brian Leddy
  • Brett Isaac, CEO of Shonto Energy, builds off-grid solar systems using settlement money from a coal power plant expansion.

    Brian Leddy

 

Last year, Duane "Chili" Yazzie nearly got himself thrown out of the Navajo Tribal Council chambers. Yazzie, who lost his right arm after being shot by a white hitchhiker in 1978, has long led the fight against racially motivated violence against Navajos in border towns. Now, as president of the Shiprock Chapter, a Navajo political entity similar to a county, he has a new target for his activism: His tribe's purchase of a coal mine from BHP Billiton, one of the world's largest mining companies.

On Dec. 23, as the tribal council speaker called for a vote on legislation related to the purchase, Yazzie broke in, speaking loudly in Navajo, his long, silvery black hair hanging in tight braids that slapped against his black leather jacket. The speaker demanded order, and Yazzie switched to English: "Mr. Chairman, you are out of order. Your council is out of order. I stand in opposition to this … circus," he said, smiling and ignoring the police officer pulling on his arm. "I call the score five to zero. The company (BHP Billiton) is five. The Navajo Nation is zero."

The mine in question, the Navajo Mine, sits on the northern edge of the reservation between Shiprock and Farmington, N.M. It supplies the Four Corners Power Plant, which has generated electricity for some 1.7 million homes across the Southwest since 1963. The plant was about to cut the amount of coal it bought from the mine by 30 percent, thanks in part to the impending closure of three of its units, and the departure of one of the plant's partial owners, a California utility being forced to ditch coal by the state's strict environmental laws. As a result, BHP Billiton wanted out of the mine.

That opened the door for the Navajo Nation to buy in, and a week after Yazzie's protest, it did. A tribally owned corporation became the new owner – the first time the Navajos have ever owned a significant piece of the energy infrastructure on their reservation. Some say it's a great deal for the tribe, one that will make money, preserve jobs and give the Navajos greater control over their natural resources. Others call it a huge mistake, especially given the coal industry's uncertain future.

The debate over the purchase reflects a larger rift in the tribe between "traditionalists," who say the coal industry is doing irreparable physical and spiritual damage to the environment, and "progressives," who want to buy into the industry and reap more of the profits. "I think for too long we tried to imitate the modern, Western society," says Yazzie, who has become the traditionalists' de facto voice. "But is that who we want to be?"