10/10/2011 Frontiers, the Changing America Desk: Coal Remains King On Navajo Nation…For Now By Laurel Morales: FLAGSTAFF — The last of the world’s largest coal-slurry plants will literally implode next month. The Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada closed in 2005 after a series of conflicts with environmentalists and the Navajo Nation over pollution and water use. Explosives will be strategically placed around the steel-framed boiler towers so it will collapse and crumble into dust. And other coal-fired power plants in the region may soon face a similar fate. That puts hundreds of jobs for the Navajo and Hopi tribes in jeopardy.
Navajo Generating Station’s three stacks – each 775 feet tall – are visible from several miles away. This plant was built about the same time as the Mohave, and unlike the decommissioned Mohave plant, has kept on top of pollution control mandates. So it’s still operating, sitting adjacent to Antelope Canyon, one of the most photographed slot canyons in the southwest; and just a couple miles from Lake Powell.
Enough coal is pulverized to power 3 million people in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and beyond. Yet the floor barely vibrates.
In the control room, Julius Fat sits in front of several computer screens and buttons. He points out the two buttons that when pushed together shut down the entire plant.
“You can’t lose your cool in here,” Fat said. “You got to keep it together.”
Fat is one of many Navajos who work for the plant and send money back to their families.
In fact, the unemployment rate on the Navajo Nation is almost 50 percent. Coal mines and coal-fired power plants provide about 1,500 jobs and more than a third of the tribe’s annual operating budget. Not to mention scholarships and royalty checks.
But many are worried the plants could shut down.
Environmentalists have targeted coal energy in the region with lawsuits, claiming poor air pollution controls contribute to the haze at Grand Canyon and beyond.
And the EPA is expected to come out with new clean up mandates in coming months – mandates that could cost as much as a billion dollars to upgrade each of the three plants on or near the reservation.
George Hardeen worked for former Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., and now consults with the Navajo Generating Station.
“When Navajos leave the Navajo Nation they take with them their language, their culture and their way of life,” Hardeen said. “If there are no jobs on the Navajo Nation, they don’t return. The Navajo Generating Station has served as an economic anchor for almost 40 years.”
With coal jobs threatened, the tribe is looking for alternatives. And their geography could be an asset.
Navajo Tribal Utility Authority Manager Walter Haase just signed an agreement with Edison Mission and the Salt River Project to build a large scale wind farm on a ranch owned by the tribe west of Flagstaff.
“This type of project is a paradigm shift for the Native American community,” Haase said.
This is the first renewable project that is majority owned by a tribe. It would create about 350 temporary jobs during construction, but only 10 permanent jobs.
While Haase would like to see the tribe offset its economic dependence on coal, he says it’s not practical to say renewable energy will replace coal.
“So if you were to switch from one to the other, which isn’t physically possible, you’re going from 1,500 jobs down to 150 jobs,” Haase said. “That’s a losing equation for anybody.”
Many renewable energy developers have tried and failed to get projects started on the reservation.
Navajo community developer Brett Isaac is trying to bring commercial solar projects and green jobs to his home town of Shonto. But he said he has to tread carefully. He has many relatives who work in the coal industry.
“If they were to close tomorrow, we would be in a whole mess of trouble,” Isaac said. “We’re to some degree supportive of them continuing operation. The regulations are going to catch up with them and we need to start planning ahead and thinking about the long term.”
Isaac is willing to forge a compromise and move slowly toward a better solution. In the meantime, legislators have asked the EPA to give the Navajo Generating Station another 15 years without additional upgrades. This would buy some time for a more diverse and clean industry to develop on the reservation.
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