Reader View: Navajo Nation can move away from coal

The opportunity has presented itself once more, and the time is now for the Navajo Nation to transition itself away from the coal industry.

To do this will require a coordinated effort of many to whom this letter is addressed: “I am a coal man,” says Speaker of Council, Delegate Lorenzo Bates. I’d like to know, when the coal is all gone, what kind of man he will be.

The reason Arizona’s Salt River Project leads energy production in Arizona is because the Salt River Project refuses to just be “a coal man.” The Salt River Project understands that to remain cost-competitive and in control of Arizona’s energy, it must not only be a coal man, but also a gas man, a hydro man and even a renewable man. Both Arizona Public Service and the Salt River Project have once again secured the energy market in Arizona because they refuse to be only a coal man.

Hybrid plants have popped up all over central and southern Arizona, including wind generators and solar facilities. Leadership like that from Delegate Bates is a reason the Navajo Nation will remain at or above 50 percent unemployment for decades to come. There has been a refusal to acknowledge the crashing coal market and to invest in and to deploy the cleanest and most cost-effective technology available to generate renewable energy. The Navajo Nation no longer can afford the harmful costs and risks associated with coal, fracking and uranium.

How many more citizens will have to die at the hands of cancer, poisoned water and black lung before we decide to factor in the real costs of the fossil fuel industry? Additionally, we have not addressed the unregulated, toxic pile of coal ash waste on the reservation left by coal plants — millions of tons of coal ash that will leach into the ground and into the groundwater, contaminating our precious water sources.

Let’s ask Salt River Project senior management, which has the means to do what’s right for the Navajo Nation, to provide lifetime health care and compensate our workers. Let’s urge true beneficial use for the aging Navajo Generation Station plant to transform the property to a solar energy plant. To be clear, we want transition to a solar plant and not a gas plant.

How many other utility companies have dominated energy with the backing of the federal government? The Department of Interior and its arm, the Bureau of Reclamations, pressured the Navajo Nation to give up both land and water for the Navajo Generation Station plant. In addition, the coal and groundwater from Black Mesa was committed to the Navajo Generation Station plant. Since the operation began, the Salt River Project has enjoyed free rights-of-way, free water from the Colorado River and low, low coal prices.

This was accomplished at the expense of Navajos and Hopis on Black Mesa. In a place with less than 8 inches of rainfall per year, the cost for a well to the only source of drinking water for Navajos and Hopis on Black Mesa costs approximately $1 million per well. Today, this sole-source drinking water is more than 2,000 feet in the ground. The combined Navajo Generation Station and Peabody operation has resulted in the drawdown and contamination to Black Mesa’s only drinking water source.

Now is the time for Diné to demand renewable energy. We owe it to the future generations to protect the place we call home. Demanding a just transition that will ensure retraining and jobs is the moral and ethical action to take.

Nicole Horseherder is lifetime resident of Black Mesa in northeast Arizona. Nicole has bachelor’s and a master’s degrees and is a Navajo Nation tribal member advocating for the protection of Black Mesa water resources.

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