The Navajo Nation Council continues to debate the future of the Navajo Generating Station, with at least two upcoming discussions likely to prove controversial.
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly gave his approval on February 16 to a lease extension negotiated between tribal officials and the Salt River Project, the primary owners of the plant. On February 20, Speaker Johnny Naize sponsored legislation to bring the extension before the council. There, it hit a snag amid complaints that council members hadn’t been involved in the negotiations.
In its opposition, the council invoked Title 18, a little-known provision of the Navajo Nation Code that mandates legislative involvement in mineral leases and energy agreements.
“There was no Council that participated in the negotiating team, that’s a flaw in the negotiations,” complained Delegate Dwight Witherspoon, in a March 1 press release. “We didn’t have an opportunity to provide input into the negotiations.”
Shelly’s office has contended that Title 18 is an obsolete provision that hadn’t been used since it was written in 1989, when the tribe’s three-branch government was established. Shelly’s spokesman, Erny Zah, also said the provision appears to apply to new mineral leases and energy agreements, not revisions of existing ones. Navajo Attorney General Harrison Tsosie was to look into those specifics – but Tsosie has since become the subject of a legislative action to fire him, partly because of his handling of the lease extension negotiations.
According to Shelly’s office, the renewed lease would bring the tribe $42 million a year in lease payments for 25 years, beginning with the start of the new lease in 2019. That annual payment is substantially larger than $608,400 outlined in the original 1969 lease.
But opposition has surfaced among tribal activists who resent decades of poor compensation for the tribe’s premium coal, as well as alleged damage to the aquifer underlying the reservation, air quality, and community health.
“We will deliver to the Navajo Nation Council delegates a prepared proclamation asking our council to deliberate with utmost respect for the environment and future generations in mind,” reads a call-out to Navajo women, urging them to join an April 16 march to the council chambers in Window Rock, Arizona. “The life of the future generations is at stake, yet we notice they make decisions based solely on only one thing – the dollar.”
Navajo women aren’t the only ones likely to plead their case. NGS and the Kayenta Mine, which supplies its coal, employ nearly 1,000 workers, most of them Navajo. And all of them are being offered a paid day off and free transportation to the Council chambers on April 11, another day when the lease renewal is set for debate.
“As issues about the Navajo Generating Station are debated by the Navajo Nation Council, NGS employees have expressed interest to show their support of legislation to extend the lease before the Council,” said Scott Harelson, SRP spokesman. “The employees want decision makers to understand the benefit from jobs that provide good pay and the security it provides for their families.”
SRP and NGS “are not trying to pack a hearing,” Harelson added. “Given the geography of the area, we understand it is a hardship on employees and their families for them to take a day off and travel to the council meetings. We also understand that the plant and their jobs are their livelihoods and we are trying to facilitate a way to let them express that to their elected officials.”