Citing human and environmental health concerns and an uncertain future for fossil fuels, a growing group of Navajo citizens is calling on the Interior Department to reverse the tribe’s recent purchase of Navajo Mine.
The 24-member Navajo Nation Council in December approved the $85 million purchase in a move proponents hope solidifies the tribe’s role in energy development. The decades-old mine located south of Farmington, New Mexico, contains coal reserves to last for the next 100 years, but opponents claim costs to health should outweigh economic benefits.
“Coal is a dirty business and it’s already impacting negatively on our health,” said Duane “Chili” Yazzie, president of the Shiprock Chapter, the largest Navajo community in Northwest New Mexico. “The coal market itself is declining, so the overall trend is away from fossil fuel. The Environmental Protection Agency seems like they’re going to get more and more stringent, so why do we want to buy into a dying industry?”
Yazzie, with support from his chapter, is threatening legal action against the Navajo Nation Council in order to halt the purchase. Besides his concerns about the environment and health, Yazzie believes council members acted in secret, violating citizens’ rights to weigh in on the matter.
“There has been no deliberate effort to present the idea of a mine purchase to the people at any time,” he said. “Our right to free, prior and informed consent is violated.”
Purchase of the mine was a lengthy process, beginning years ago when Southern California Edison, the largest interest owner at the nearby Four Corners Power Plant, announced its intent to move toward cleaner energy. Four Corners Power Plant is the sole purchaser of coal from Navajo Mine.
As the purchase of the mine was coming together in December, Arizona Public Service Company finalized a deal to buy out Southern California Edison’s interests in the plant. APS, which now has 63 percent ownership of the power plant, then permanently closed three of the five units as part of its plan to bring the plant into compliance with federal clean air standards.
The purchase deal, between the recently established Navajo Transitional Energy Company and the mine’s former owner, BHP Billiton, allows production to continue at the mine beyond 2016, when BHP’s current lease expires. The mine produces about 8 million tons of coal every year and brings in $41 million annually.
Proponents of the purchase say the acquisition is a major step in taking control of the tribe’s natural resources.
“Rather than sitting on the sidelines, we now have a say in the energy industry in terms of how that reserve of coal is being used,” said LoRenzo Bates, chairman of the Navajo Nation Council’s Budget and Finance Committee. “This say goes beyond the coal industry and allows us a voice in alternative forms of energy. Coal can have other uses, and this makes us a player in the industry.”
Since the mine and the power plant first began operating in the 1960s, the tribe has pulled in lease payments, royalties and taxes. Purchase of the mine allows those payments to continue, and it saves jobs for Navajo people, Bates said. About 800 people are employed by the mine.
“We have the power to maintain jobs at the mine and power plant and maintain revenue going forward,” he said. “It will have its challenges from opponents like environmentalists who are completely against the industry, but hopefully we’ll move forward and work through this.”
Not all tribal members are as optimistic about the future.
Yazzie, who historically has lobbied for more and better-paying jobs on the reservation, has petitioned the Interior Department for clarification on whether the purchase is final. The unemployment rate on the Navajo Nation hovers near 50 percent, but Yazzie believes purchase of the mine was shortsighted.
“We’re spending $85 million to save 800 jobs,” he said. “It doesn’t equate.”
Yazzie is pushing for drastic action in the Navajo Nation Council, where investigations into fraudulent spending are ongoing. If he fails to get the purchase reversed within council chambers or with help from the Interior Department, Yazzie is prepared to take the matter to court.
Yazzie is just one of many Navajo citizens appealing for intervention from federal leaders. Two grassroots groups of environmental activists also are seeking support from Washington, D.C., to stop or reverse the purchase.
Diné CARE – or Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment – wants to halt the purchase until an environmental impact statement is completed. The Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement is preparing that statement, with release expected sometime this spring.
Lori Goodman, treasurer for Diné CARE, fears the statement will reveal significant risks to the environment and to human health. Among those risks, she said, is the 100 million tons of coal ash created by the power plant and contamination of nearby water supplies. This statement is the first to be released in 50 years, Goodman said.
“It might turn out that mining coal is not viable,” she said. “Then there’s a huge liability looming for the Navajo Nation. This could bankrupt us.”
Another grassroots group that has taken stands against fossil fuels is Dooda Desert Rock, an organization that sprang up in response to the tribe’s plans in 2003 to build a coal-fired power plant about 25 miles south of Farmington. The plant, Desert Rock, would have been the third on reservation land, but it failed to come to fruition.
Elouise Brown, president of Dooda, said she opposes the mine purchase for the same reasons she fought against Desert Rock. Brown recently lost her father to health problems linked to his work in uranium mines, and she believes a new generation of disease and death is coming for those who work in the mine.
“Health needs to be the main concern,” she said. “Health of people, the environment and all living creatures.”