The end of an era on the Colorado Plateau

As the Mohave power plant closes its doors, two Arizona tribes wonder what’s next

  • Vernon Masayesva, founder of Black Mesa Trust, has fought groundwater pumping for nearly a decade

    William Campbell
  • Deep trenches expose coal layers in the pinon- and juniper-covered hills of Black Mesa in northern Arizona

    Adriel Heisey

KYKOTSMOVI, Hopi Reservation — On New Year’s Day, the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev., shut down its gigantic twin 750 megawatt boilers. At the same time, the massive draglines at Black Mesa Mine on Hopi and Navajo land in northeastern Arizona ceased moving tons of earth to expose rich veins of coal.

Depending on whom you ask, the closing of the power plant and the mine that feeds it is either a significant environmental victory — Mohave was the dirtiest remaining power plant in the Intermountain West — or an economic catastrophe for the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe, both of which were dependent on coal royalties.

In fact, it is both of these things, and a whole lot more.

The shutdowns were indeed sparked by a lawsuit filed in 1997 by the Grand Canyon Trust and other environmental groups against Southern California Edison, Mohave’s majority owner, for repeated violations of the Clean Air Act. In 1999, Edison agreed to retrofit the plant, which supplied customers in energy-hungry California, with state-of-the-art pollution controls by Jan. 1, 2006. But it failed to do so, and was forced to shut down.

The sole purpose of the Black Mesa Mine was to deliver coal to Mohave, so it, too, closed. The mine closure means that both the Navajo Nation and Hopi tribe will lose huge portions of their operating revenues, and hundreds of tribal members will lose well-paid jobs.

But that easy analysis ignores the role that the energy market has played in this drama – and the role that it could continue to play. It also sidesteps a crucial piece of the debate over the mine and the power plant: water.

David versus Goliath

Since the 1960s, Peabody has been pumping from the Navajo Aquifer, the Hopi Tribe’s sole source of drinking water. The water was mixed with crushed coal to form a slurry that was then piped nearly 300 miles to the power plant. The process used more than a billion gallons of groundwater each year — enough for 18,000 families, in a region where many homes still lack running water.

In the mid-’90s, Hopi farmers and spiritual leaders noticed a precipitous decline in the amount of water in the sacred springs that flow from beneath Black Mesa (HCN, 3/4/02: Is a coal mine pumping the Hopi dry?). Vernon Masayesva, a former tribal chairman, and many others believed Peabody was to blame. In 1998, Masayesva founded Black Mesa Trust to stop the groundwater pumping, pitting the tribes’ traditional belief in the sacredness of water against the combined might of the federal bureaucracy and the world’s largest coal company.

Black Mesa Trust, joined by Navajo grassroots groups, paid for studies that proved the pumping threatened the health of the Navajo aquifer. By 2003, they had convinced both tribal governments to pass resolutions demanding an end to the pumping. Peabody then agreed to look for an alternative source of water for the slurry — an alternative it found, though never had the occasion to use, 100 miles away, in the Coconino Aquifer. That aquifer is the primary source of drinking water for Flagstaff and several other northern Arizona communities.

Jan. 1, the day the mine closed, was "Independence Day," Masayesva says, sitting in his living room in Kykotsmovi, the Hopi capital. That’s when "we cut the umbilical cord to the company store that has bought out our soul."

Masayesva believes that the mine’s shutdown will replenish the springs, which are critical to tribal ceremonies and water the terrace gardens that spill down the sides of mesas where the Hopis have lived for a millennium. "We all came from water," Masayesva says. "That’s the basic law. All life comes from water."

But it wasn’t just the water agreement that shut down the Mohave Generating Station and the Black Mesa mine. Arguably, it wasn’t the environmentalists’ lawsuit, either. The tribal opposition to groundwater pumping had caused Southern California Edison to hesitate in making the multimillion-dollar investment in new pollution controls at Mohave. But the coup de grâce was administered by the changing energy market. Edison became convinced that cheaper, cleaner natural gas-fired plants would soon render coal plants obsolete — so it postponed starting the three-year retrofit required for the plant to remain open.

Now, Peabody spokeswoman Beth Sutton says a total of 600 jobs will be lost among the power plant, the slurry pipeline and the mine, in a region with 60 percent unemployment. She estimates the mine’s direct economic benefits at $90 million per year in royalties, taxes, charitable contributions, wages and benefits. "The sadness of closure," says Sutton, "is that it serves no one — not the tribes, our employees, or the electricity customers, who are facing ever-increasing energy bills."

Easing the pain

The town of Kayenta on the Navajo Nation, where most of Black Mesa’s employees live, is bracing for the mine’s shutdown. "The closure really hits home," says Lena Clitso, whose husband, Edward, worked as a machinist there for 30 years, sending two kids through college. Jobs like his paid as much as $70,000 — seven times the average income on the reservations.

"There’s not really (many other jobs) for the people that got laid off to get," says Kayenta Chapter Vice President Alyce Yazzie. "There’s nothing that will be competitive to those … high-paying jobs."

In addition to the personal hardships, the mine’s shutdown will have a dramatic effect on the economies of both the Hopi and Navajo Nations. One-third of the Hopi tribal government’s operating budget came directly from the mine — $7 million a year. "We’re in a tough situation right now," says Hopi Tribal Councilman King Honanie. As many as 150 tribal employees could lose their jobs, which often support extended families; funding for the villages’ senior and youth centers will be cut by 20 percent. The Navajo Nation, meanwhile, will lose about 15 percent of its revenues.

To ease the pain, environmentalists and tribal groups such as the Black Mesa Trust are pushing a "Just Transition" plan. They want Southern California Edison and the Mohave plant’s three other utility co-owners to pay the tribes millions of dollars a year for the next 20 years; the tribes plan to invest some of the money in developing renewable energy.

The money is there, they say, in the form of payoffs the plant owners will receive from the government for shuttering the plant, which pumped about 40,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air each year. Under an Environmental Protection Agency program to reduce acid rain, the owners will receive "sulfur allowances" worth around $20 million each year in perpetuity. They can sell those credits to other utilities, which can use them in lieu of installing expensive pollution-control devices.

"All these years, the owners of Mohave have been purchasing the coal, but they’re really interested in the carbon," which is what’s burned to produce energy, explains Roger Clark, director of air and energy for the Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff. "The rest of the material, including the sulfur, is waste that they’ve been dumping with impunity. Now they turn around and get credit for stopping that dumping. One way to look at it is the tribes still own that sulfur. They have the right to that sulfur credit."

The story isn’t over

The tribal governments, however, have not endorsed the transition plan. Nor have they developed any short-term economic development alternatives to make up for the lost revenue. Instead, they’re working with Peabody to tap the Coconino Aquifer so that Southern California Edison can reopen Mohave.

Surprisingly, Southern California Edison may be interested. In a filing with the California Public Utilities Commission in September, the utility wrote, "the recent sharp run-up in natural gas prices … has underscored the high importance and value of Mohave to fuel diversity." That run-up, which is not expected to drop anytime soon, means that coal is now more attractive as a source of low-cost power generation. If the Interior Department approves the re-opening plan, it would take Edison at least three years to retrofit Mohave with pollution-control equipment and replace the aging slurry pipeline. That would bolster the tribes’ economies, but critics argue that it ignores the fundamental issue — the wisdom of pumping groundwater in an arid but growing region to transport coal, on two impoverished Indian reservations where thousands of households still lack running water.

"I still have to have my water hauled, water for my livestock hauled," says Thomas Cody, who lives in the Navajo community of Leupp, where the new wells would be drilled into the Coconino Aquifer. "And it disturbs me that (if) we’re going to have a big old pipeline that runs past my house, past my chapter, my little nephews and nieces will still be sitting out there 15 years from now without running water."

The author directs the Indian Country News Bureau in Flagstaff, a project of KNAU, Arizona Public Radio, and KUYI, Hopi Radio.

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