Will the EJ legacy of Southwest coal be addressed?


I have been busy this year chasing my two young ones around the house trying to get giddy little happy people to take a few moments from their daily joy to drink some water, gulp vitamins and brush their teeth before bed so they can stay healthy. The need to play is often prioritized over their health, but they get it and do it.

As the future of coal is discussed in many communities and utility board rooms, I am equally

busy chasing decision makers playing around and avoiding the healthy choices of brushing up on the EJ issues that, if addressed, would bring us to that elusive sweet spot of addressing coal’s dark legacy and dangerous pollution while bringing more jobs and brighter tribal economies with a clean energy future.

For the owners and key decision makers of the large coal plants in the Southwest like the Navajo Generating Station on the shores of Lake Powell, a child’s creativity and simple ideas might really help our national dialogue around the transition from coal to renewables.

The Salt River Project, a huge Phoenix-based utility that manages the generating station, has been hosting meetings across the state with diverse stakeholders including the Navajo, Hopi and Gila River Nations; tribal NGO’s like the Black Mesa Water Coalition and the Forgotten People; conservation groups like the Sierra Club and Grand Canyon Trust, Department of Interior, Central Arizona Project and their big irrigators.  One participant told a story about his granddaughter viewing one of the slides of the huge generating station smokestacks on his computer. When discussing what Granddad was doing, she nodded her head and said, “Why can’t they just put a big cork in those smokestacks?”

We all laughed together with childlike abandon. Yes…it was a strange moment: Sierra Club, Peabody, Federal officials, Phoenix irrigators, all laughing together with a vision of big corks in smokestacks solving the problems of burning coal. The jovial moment underscored what we all knew to be true: stopping all emissions at a coal plant would not be as simple as a child’s cork. Discussions meant to avoid lawsuits and plant shutdowns are not easy, but I was willing to give it a try.

Most parties, including the Sierra Club, have made presentations that can be viewed on a website. The next meeting is on Friday in Flagstaff.  These meetings have allowed power plant decision makers to hear the perspectives of families living near Peabody’s mine and the plant. One elder from the Forgotten People asked the owners, “are you trying to exterminate us?” Many concerns have been discussed but nothing really has happened yet. You can follow the process blow by blow here.

Navajo Generating Station is a unique coal plant in that the federal government is the largest single owner. Therefore, we are urging the Department of Interior to take a stronger leadership role in securing a just transition for one of most toxic coal plants in the region. Other owners like Salt River Project are still running and playing, avoiding the toothbrush. Despite great attempts at delay, EPA is expected to issue orders to install better pollution controls on the power plant this summer. They need to do their job and not delay the much needed pollution controls.

In terms of the Black Mesa Mine that feeds the plant, its future is uncertain to say the least. I am happy to report a victory in our attempts to bring justice to the Navajo and Hopi communities impacted by Peabody’s mines. Our tribal partners represented by the Energy Minerals Law Center were part of a settlement that secured a public release of Peabody’s operating permit for the Kayenta and Black Mesa mines under the Freedom of Information Act. You can now view the entire Peabody 30-volume permit here.

Every night I manage to get toothpaste on the brush and help my kids progress towards better health. I haven't yet had such luck with the owners of big coal plants and coal mines.

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 Navajo Generating Station stacks courtesy the author.

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