Good news and bad news for New Mexico’s Navajo communities

 


At the end of a year defined by the Gulf oil spill, failed climate legislation, and an ever-mounting urgency as the weather intensifies, federal leadership makes strides towards clean energy at the same time that leaders continue to dig in their heels in favor of fossil fuels.  And, as everywhere in the world, indigenous peoples in North America stand on the front lines of these critical climate and energy tensions. 

This month, Navajo communities in New Mexico seeking to preserve their lands and ensure the health of future generations experienced both a victory and a defeat at the hands of federal decision-makers. But it’s not just the Navajo Nation, the largest tribal nation in the United States, that is implicated in the struggle for energy justice on tribal land.  These two decisions represent the entrenched split in the federal government’s approach to energy policy, a split that impacts everyone.

So, the bad news: this week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the 10th Circuit’s decision earlier this year to allow uranium mining at the site of the largest nuclear spill in U.S. history, on Navajo land.  Because of the high court’s decision, Hydro Resources Inc. may now move forward with its plan to leach mine uranium at Church Rock, the site of an aquifer that provides precious drinking water to 15,000 Navajo people. 

In situ leach mining mixes uranium and chemicals in the ground in order to dissolve the uranium, then pumps that mixture to the surface.  Numerous risks are involved with such a technique, included spillage of the leachate, groundwater contamination, and the impossibility of restoring contaminated or compromised drinking water sources.  This project, coming on the heels of the recent unfavorable Navajo water settlement decision, and situated in the arid, drought-affected Southwest, could severely compromise Navajo communities’ access to fresh water.

And now for the good news.  Earlier this month, the Arizona Public Service Co. (APS) decided, based on a proposed air quality rule-making by EPA, to close part of the Four Corners Power Plant – one of the nation’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants.  The plant, located on the Navajo reservation, is the largest emitter in the U.S. of nitrogen oxides, which create haze in the air and cause smog that can lead to respiratory problems.  This decision will improve air quality throughout the Southwest, and support the Navajo transition away from economic reliance on coal mining and coal energy generation and toward green economic development. 

If regulators approve the proposed closure, APS will close three units of the plant.  It will further invest in pollution controls and expansion for the two remaining, cleaner-burning units – a process that will cost utility customers across four states less than the price of bringing the three older units up to current air pollution control standards.  While the closures and their impact on the adjacent Navajo mine are controversial to some observers in terms of local economic impact, APS itself states that none of the 549 jobs at the plant -- nearly three quarters of which are held by Navajo people -- will be cut

On balance, these two decisions exemplify both federal ambivalence towards the climate crisis, and the impact of that ambivalence on the lives and livelihoods of indigenous peoples. While some federal leaders make incremental steps towards renewable energy and climate change mitigation, others remain staunchly committed to business as usual -- at the increasing peril of tribal nations’ sovereignty, environmental health and economic resilience. 

Caitlin Sislin, Esq. is the North America Program Director for Women's Earth Alliance, where she coordinates the WEA Advocacy Network -- a network of pro bono legal and policy advocates in collaboration with indigenous women environmental justice leaders.  For more information, please contact Caitlin at [email protected]

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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