Clinging to coal on the reservation is looking backward

by Sarah Jane White

“Courageous,” “an opportunity,” “a venture into a new era,” “a vision for the future.”

To hear glowing words like these from some leaders of the Navajo Nation, you might think the tribe had decided to head boldly into renewable energy or some other modern economic model.

But no, the officials were describing the tribe’s desire to buy and prolong the life of a 50-year-old coal mine on the Navajo Reservation. At the least, this is an odd plan, as the mine’s current corporate owner doesn’t even see the mine as profitable and just wants to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

I was a teenager when the Four Corners Power Plant and the Navajo Mine that supplies it with coal started up in the early 1960s. Relatives and friends have worked at the mine, which is just 20 miles from my home; some have retired from it. My late husband worked at the coal plant as a truck driver, hauling coal ash waste to the mine pits. It was a dirty job in many ways: Coal ash contains heavy metal toxins, and my husband came home each day with his face and clothes coated black.

About 10 years ago, I began thinking about other ways of generating electricity than coal-fired power plants. That’s when I first got a computer and got on the Internet. I wanted to learn what was in the smoke I saw coming from the Four Corners Power Plant and San Juan Generating Station. As I learned about the pollution from coal-generated electricity and what it does to human health, water and fish, I started going from house to house to talk about it with other residents in my area. Until then, I hadn’t realized how many of my neighbors were grappling with lung problems, either from asthma, which I also suffer from, or other respiratory issues. Many have lived with coal dust blowing into their homes for decades.

I also heard many residents express frustration that, after 50 years, the coal industry on the Navajo Nation has not really benefited our people. Power lines crisscross our land, but many Navajo homes still have no electricity or running water -- even some that are close to the power plants.

In recent years, the coal ash waste at the Four Corners plant hasn’t been dumped back into the mine because mine owner BHP Billiton apparently got nervous about its liability for toxics from ash waste seeping out. Instead, it’s being dumped in huge surface pits near the Chaco Wash, which funnels rain and snow melt into the San Juan River. From the surface pits, high winds pick up the ash and blow it around.

While it might be a new thing for the Navajo Nation to own its own mine, all across America coal is becoming a part of the past as coal mines close. It is a polluting fuel that’s very costly to try to clean up. Major portions of both the San Juan Generating Station and Four Corners Power Plant are due to be closed soon. At the Navajo Generating Station coal plant near the Grand Canyon, two owners have announced that they’re leaving; meanwhile, the plant has fallen behind on controlling its pollution.

Nationwide, and especially in the Southwest, polls this year reveal that most of the people asked want more power to come from renewable sources like solar and wind, rather than from coal. So should we keep tearing into our land to fuel far-off places like China? In the Pacific Northwest, residents are concerned about coal-export terminals, and plans for three of them have been scrapped.

Deciding to hold on more tightly to a declining coal industry is not a courageous vision for the Navajo people; it’s a retreat to the past as well as a reckless idea. It could leave us dealing with the decades of coal waste dumped on our land while a multinational mining corporation washes its hands of all responsibility. A wiser, more far-sighted vision is to create clean renewable energy development on our land to benefit the Navajo economy. If we don’t do it soon, others will, and the door will one day be slammed on our coal workers, leaving them – and us – with no other alternatives in sight.

When I was little, my father used to tell us that the land, our Mother Earth, is sacred, that we are its keepers. We care for it, he said, but we don’t own it. I wish my father were here now to advise our shortsighted leaders who are so eager to own a 50-year-old coal mine. I think he’d advise us to find a new and better model, one that doesn’t come at the cost of our health, our water, and our Mother Earth.

Sarah Jane White is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives on the Navajo Nation near the Chaco Wash in northwestern New Mexico.

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