The end of the Mojave coal-fired power plant


The most recent thud Big Coal suffered around the West happened on March 11, when the 500 ft tall coal smokestack at the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada was demolished as part of the decommissioning process for the plant. While this was a historic end for the storied legacy of the Mohave coal-fired power plant, it also was a sign of the future that lies ahead.

The Mohave coal-fired power plant opened in 1971, and was controversial from the start. Local residents, like Sierra Club member Jack Erhardt, would have to sweep coal ash off his car with a broom before going to work many mornings. The coal for the plant came from Peabody Coal Company’s mine on Black Mesa’s northern rim near the Four Corners. The company transported coal from the mine via only coal slurry line in the country, which stretched 273 miles and sent a mix of half groundwater and half coal to the plant.

This means that water was shipped away from the communities on Navajo and Hopi lands where people use the same groundwater source for drinking water and traditional ceremonies. The water used to move coal to the Mohave plant was pumped from Navajo aquifer deep below Black Mesa. Because of the quantity of groundwater it used, over 4000 acre/feet per year, which ended up at the power plant, where it evaporated in settling ponds, the slurry line earned the opposition of both Navajo and Hopi grassroots activists from several native activist groups: the Black Mesa Water Coalition, To Nizhoni Ani, Dine CARE and Black Mesa Trust. The fight to keep the water from being used to transport coal unified the groups, who preferred the water be available to feed sacred springs and sustain the lives of traditional sheepherders and ranchers. Now that the plant has toppled, it remains to be seen if the Navajo aquifer will bounce back and if the sacred and ancient waters below Black Mesa will recharge. Peabody still uses over 1600 acre feet per year for the Kayenta coal mine that feeds the Navajo Generating Station outside Page, AZ.

In addition to water use for coal transportation the Mohave plant was easily the dirtiest in the West. It amassed more than 400,000 violations of pollution protection laws between 1993-1998, according to evidence submitted in a historic legal battle over Mohave. A strong alliance of conservation groups including the Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust and National Parks Conservation Association reached a court-approved order in 1999 that allowed owners five years to decide if they would install the pollution controls necessary to limit the toxic pollution emitted from the plant, or if they would shut it down. Mohave’s owner chose the latter and the plant was finally shut down on December 31, 2005.The owners sold the plant's equipment and have now begun the nasty job of decommissioning a dirty coal plant, which included demolishing the 500-foot smokestack.

As the coal stack fell, I was reminded of all the work and sacrifice of community groups over the years and realized that our work is not done.

Our allies with To Nizhoni Ani, Black Mesa Water Coalition, Black Mesa Trust and Dine CARE continue to work on a brighter and clean energy future in the Southwest. A transition off coal towards renewables is tough work. It is complicated and hard to battle against a very well-funded coal lobby that has reaped huge profits by exploiting communities in the Southwest, but it remains my honor to simply count the people working to bring about a clean energy transition as my allies and friends.

The Sierra Club understands that each time a smokestack thuds in America, we need to ensure we will replace that smokestack with clean energy. We are working on several fronts to try and help promote the benefits of a clean energy transition in local economies. At Mohave, for example, the plant’s owners should work with the growing clean energy sector to transition Mohave to a solar thermal plant. How can we keep the lights on without depending on coal? The fate of Mohave’s future, we hope, can shine the light forward on how coal’s dark legacy can really become an opportunity to bring solar energy online as we take coal off line. At Mohave, the transmission is up, and there is now more room for solar panels now that the coal stack has fallen.

The future is always changing and we have yet to see how Mohave’s legacy will finally pan out. As part of the Just Transition Coalition, we still await a decision from the California Public Utility Commission for them to rule on our “Just Transition Motion” on using Mohave’s future sales of pollution credits they score each year for selling sulfur dioxide allowances to spend on renewable energy projects on tribal lands. We hope some good comes out of Mohave’s legacy and this would help right the environmental injustice that occurred.

There are thousands of activists working to end coal’s toxic legacy in their communities around the country.  We will continue to work to ensure that as other plants follow Mohave’s example, as we transition to clean, renewable energy.


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

Andy Bessler is a Field Organizer for the Sierra Club based in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he raises his two kids Noah and Ruby with his wife Erin. Andy represents the Sierra Club in the Southwest on the nexus between environmental justice and a clean energy transition for local and regional economies off dirty coal. He is also a sitting board member of several non-profits including Friends of Flagstaff’s Future, The Plateau Chapter of the Society of Conservation Biology and is an adviser to the Black Mesa Water Coalition.

Photo of the Black Mesa mine courtesy Flickr user Doc Searls.
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