Speaking Diné to Dirty Power: Navajo Challenge New Coal-Fired Plant


In a makeshift hut on a hilltop in the high desert near Farmington, New Mexico,  local schoolteacher David Nez projects a PowerPoint presentation on a blanket nailed to the wall. Outside the door, a small wind and solar generator silently provides the electricity for his computer-aided presentation. Less than a mile away, a different technology rules. Smoke plumes mark the horizon from huge coal-fired power plants, as an enormous crane rips into the Navajo coal mine, the largest open pit mine in the western U.S.

If plans go through for a massive new plant, co-owned by Houston-based Sithe Global Power and the Diné Power Authority (DPA), another coal-fired facility will generate electricity on the lands of the Diné indigenous peoples (also known as the Navajo by the colonizers). This tribal enterprise has split the Navajo Nation, with some praising the opportunity for economic development and others decrying the inevitable effect on environment and values.

Elouise Brown, Hank Dixon, Nez and a few of their Navajo elders have gathered in the rustic hut to figure out how to block the new construction. Brown found out  about the project in December when she came on a man drilling a test well on her family's grazing land. She cornered the worker and forced him to leave. That same day she established a blockade at the site now known as the Dooda Desert Rock vigil (Dooda means "no" in the Diné language). Even without the new project a dense curtain of brown smog hangs over the desert between the site of the vigil and the distant silhouette of Shiprock peak.

The plant would burn 5.5 million tons of Navajo coal per year and produce 1,500  megawatts of electricity for the fast-growing cities of the Southwest. "You will hear that the Navajo Nation supports this power plant, but grassroots people do not support this," said Nez, who lives 20 miles from the site of the proposed plant.

Hank Dixon, a young Navajo whose family's land is impacted by the project, called the decision-making process "undemocratic."

George Hardeen, spokesman for the office of Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, says it was precisely that: the Tribal Council voted 66 to 7 to invite Sithe. "It's just that [the Dooda Desert Rock resisters] happen to be on the side that lost the vote."

With frequent rallies in the state capitol at Santa Fe in support of the Dooda Desert Rock Resisters, awareness of the issue is growing. Dixon, Brown, and Nez think that when people get the facts, a majority of Navajo will oppose the plant. They are  planning to tour of the entire Navajo Nation - an area the size of the state of  West Virginia - to educate their tribe.

The PowerPoint they are preparing will include such words as  "mercury," "arsenic," "acid rain," "sludge," and "smog" that have no equivalent in Diné, but have an all-too familiar impact on Navajo health, land, and culture, Hank Dixon says. "Our Navajo people give a blessing every morning with corn pollen to welcome the dawn." Squinting out at the brown cloud, he adds, "With that smog blocking the sunrise, we can't  even see the dawn."

Big Coal is Big Business

The proposed Desert Rock plant is one of the more than 150 new coal-fired power  plants planned to go into production in the U.S. by 2030. With growing awareness of the role of global warming and air quality concerns, many of these projects have sparked campaigns like the one envisioned in the New Mexico hilltop hut.

The rush to build new coal plants is being largely underwritten by private equity firms - big investors that raise money from pension funds and wealthy individuals. The Blackstone Group, a Park Avenue investment firm owns 80 percent of Sithe Global. Forbes has recognized Blackstone chief executive officer Stephen Schwarzman as the 73rd richest man in the U.S., with a personal net worth of $2.5 billion. From his perch in one of the most expensive townhouses on Park Avenue, formerly owned by  John D. Rockefeller, Schwarzman oversees a lucrative empire that includes 47 companies, with more than $85 billion in revenue from holdings as varied as Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Houghton Mifflin Publishing, and Universal Studios.

Despite the Blackstone Group's dizzying wealth, Sithe is asking the state of New Mexico for an $85 million tax break to build the Desert Rock plant. The Navajo Nation has already offered Sithe a 67 percent tax reduction and a bargain basement price of $2.70 per thousand gallons for the water that will be used in the plant. (The tax break failed to pass a March 2007 vote, but may be brought back by politicians down the road)

Frank Maisano, spokesperson for Sithe - and a man with a long history battling emissions standards for the energy, automotive, and other polluting industries - says the company needs tax breaks to make the project commercially viable.

"You have to understand that this is a three billion dollar project, so the revenue it generates for both the State and the [Navajo] Nation will be extremely significant. Even with the 67 percent tax reduction, it makes Sithe the largest taxpayer on the Navajo Nation. This reflects the size of the project and its importance to the Navajo."

For Sithe and other energy companies, there are many advantages to building power plants on tribal land. For one thing, the Navajo reservation is rich in coal - much of it owned by BHP Billiton of Australia, the world's largest mining company. For Sithe, a key attraction is the status of tribes as sovereign nations that are not required to follow U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emissions standards.

"They only recognize our sovereignty when they want to dump toxic waste on us,"  says Lori Goodman, spokesperson for Diné CARE, (Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment), She charges that Sithe is benefitting from "Dick Cheney's secret meetings with the energy companies" that resulted in the Energy Policy Act of August 2005. A provision of this act known as the Tribal Energy Resource Agreements (TERA) made it unnecessary for Indian nations to follow national laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act.

Sithe counters that the Navajo have a sovereign right to profit from their resources. "It's easy for environmentalists to say you can't use that coal because it's dirty," says Sithe spokesperson, Maisano. "But the Navajos have coal in the ground, and  that is a huge economic development resource for them."

Navajo spokesperson Hardeen agrees. "The Navajo Nation government has to take care of its people by raising revenues and providing services, and that's what this project will do."

Economic Opportunities

Sithe expects that the proposed Desert Rock plant will create 400 permanent jobs and generate $50 million per year for the tribe - a third of the Navajo Nation budget - over the facility's 30-40 year life span. Maisano points out that the plant is unique in that the Navajo Nation will be part owners.

"It's not just about $50 million a year," he says. "It's an attitude and an approach. It's adding to coal and water leases, to construction jobs, to quality of life."

"This project will kick-start the Navajo Nation economy," says Hardeen. "Having  a project of this size - the largest project in native America - is a huge cornerstone of the Navajo Nation's goals. There's really nothing else that can compare to this."

"This is not just about one project," says plant opponent Hank Dixon.  "It's about the people surviving as Navajo. We have half a million Navajo and they're proposing a plant that's going to employ 400 people. That's not even a dent in our economic development problems."

"If you're going to build an infrastructure to run a nation," adds David Nez, "you can't do it on $50 million a year. We're like a third world country, selling our natural resources really cheap. If we really want to do that we should make these companies pay what it's worth."

But Nez raises a more fundamental objection: "Is the goal of the Navajo people to get rich? Because quality of life, even if you're poor, means clean air, clean water, beautiful scenery. Is Sithe going to buy water for our children in the future?"

The Four Corners - A National Sacrifice Area

Even if activists manage to derail the new plant, the Four Corners region is already "a national energy sacrifice area," says Mike Eisenberg of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a local community group. His group has been protesting the Four Corners power plant and the San Juan generating station, located within sight of each other just outside Farmington in San Juan County, which are two of the most polluting plants in the western U.S.

American Lung Association figures show that 16,000 people in the county, or close to 15 percent of the population, suffer from lung disease, most likely from plant emissions. The 2,040 megawatt Four Corners plant emits 157 million pounds of sulfur dioxide, 122 million pounds of nitrogen oxides, 8 million pounds of soot and 2,000 pounds of mercury a year. The 1,800 megawatt San Juan generating station releases over 100 million pounds of sulfur dioxide, more than 100 million pounds of nitrogen oxides, roughly 6 million pounds of soot, and at least 1000 pounds of mercury.  Add to this the 18,000 oil and gas wells spread throughout the region and you have "massive cumulative impacts that will never be reversed," says Eisenberg.

The Navajo Nation seems to have no accesible records of local health impacts.

"We don't have numbers, because Indian Health Services is notoriously under-funded and isn't keeping track [of the health impacts]," says David Nez. "But when I was a kid no one here had asthma. Now lots of kids have it."

CorpWatch calls to reach Indian Health Services for comments were not returned.

Dr. Marcus Higi of Cortez, Colorado, who worked as a physician on the reservation for four years, agrees with Nez. "I've seen the worst asthma cases out  here near the power plants," he said. "A kid would come in, barely breathing. They're basically on the verge of death."

Air pollution is not the only problem. Waste from the area's two coal mines has destroyed ground water with high sulfate content that kills livestock, "wiping out ranching as a viable business on this part of the reservation," according to Jeff Stant, a consultant with the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based non-profit group.

Some "70 million tons of coal combustion waste has been dumped in the Navajo coal mine, making it the biggest dump of mine waste in the country," Stant continues. "Between this and the nearby San Juan mine there's 150 million tons of waste sitting there. That's more fly ash and scrubber sludge than the entire nation generates in one year."

This waste, heavily laden with cadmium, selenium, arsenic, and lead - byproducts of coal-burning - leaches into groundwater turning it poisonous to people, livestock, and vegetation. A forthcoming EPA report released to the national environmental  group Earth Justice indicates that groundwater contaminated with coal ash leads  to a cancer risk as high as 1 in 100 - 10,000 times higher than previous EPA estimates.

"When you look at the plan for the Desert Rock plant, one of the first things it says is that the sludge and ash will be dumped back into the mine pit," says Stant, who directs the Safe Disposal Campaign for the Clean Air Task force. "It's the same thing the other plants have done, and it's a disaster."

Desert Rock Emissions

Sithe says that Desert Rock will be a flagship for a new generation of "environmentally friendly" coal-fired plants. According to Desert Rock Energy vice-president Nathan Plagans, fly ash from the plant will be sold to make concrete, reducing the plant's solid waste output dramatically, and the plant will use as little water as possible.

Jeff Stant, who has studied the project permit, disagrees. "Assertions of plans are one thing. What the permit says is another." Desert Rock's pollution permit application says: "Solid wastes produced by the combustion of the coal and the air pollution control system will be returned to the mine."

Sithe has also made a voluntary agreement to reduce mercury emissions by 80 percent above what the pollution permit requires. But the Sierra Club, another national  environmental group, estimates that the plant will put 114 to 555 pounds of mercury a year into the local environment, along with tons of other toxins. Regional waterways including the San Juan River are already subject to fish warnings because of high mercury content.

The plant will also emit an estimated 13.7 million tons of global warming pollution per year, Sithe claims that it has designed the plant to function at super-critical heat, to get more energy out of less coal. Yet Sandra Ely, environment and energy policy coordinator for the New Mexico Environment Department, told the Farmington Daily Times that the plant would raise statewide greenhouse gas levels by 25 percent.

While it is a leading cause of global warming, the EPA currently has no restrictions on carbon dioxide.

That may change soon. California utilities' strict emission standards mean that state will not buy power from coal-powered plants, and other states may soon follow.

Carol Oldham of the Sierra Club is sanguine. "It's just a matter of time before  carbon is heavily regulated," she says. "A number of industry groups have called for an 80 percent carbon reduction by 2050. So we could end up with a lot of empty plants paid for by our taxes."

Who Gets the Power?

The energy companies, for their part are also optimistic in assuming that there will be no change in current energy demand, and no plan for energy conservation or increased reliance on renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar.

As the largest Indian indigenous reservation in the U.S, with land spanning four states, the Navajo Nation is rich not only in coal, uranium, and other valuable minerals, but in some of the country's best potential for generating wind and solar power. Nonetheless according to Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, some 18,000 Navajo homes still lack any electricity whatsoever.

"You cross that dirt road over there," says Nez, "and there's a little Hogan [traditional Navajo house] and a little sheep corral, no running water and no electricity, and in the backyard there's a big behemoth power plant sending electricity down to Tucson, down to Phoenix, or Las Vegas."

Instead of inviting power plants, "the tribe could look into putting up windmills and solar panels, and set aside land with the okay of the people who hold the grazing permits."

Standing outside a trailer at the Dooda Desert Rock vigil, Elouise Brown is hopeful. Looking out at the dust cloud rising from the coal mine nearby, on land that her people have grazed for centuries, she says "Something tells me these power plants aren't going to happen."

"This is not just a local issue," says David Nez. "This is a worldwide issue. We need to stop global warming now, and we need to start right here."

This article was made possible by a generous grant from the Hurd Foundation

AMP Section Name:Energy
  • 182 Health
  • 183 Environment
  • 190 Natural Resources
* indicates required