Freeing Our Sacred Lands | - July 26, 2011

"Two of the five coal burning power plants that reside in or around the Navajo Nation are located in Northwestern New Mexico."

Most everyone has heard some negatives attached to coal, that “cheap” fossil fuel that has propelled civilization’s progress since the 18th century.  After all, where would we be if we hadn’t had this readily available energy source to fire the boilers for our factories, schools, homes and ships.  Coal has been everywhere to be seen, from the steel mills producing the material to build those mighty ships that circled the globe, to the great iron horse, the steam engine locomotives that soon traversed our landscape to supply that civilization from sea to shining sea. 

There was almost something oddly romantic about those smokestacks billowing black. They represented progress, innovation, adventure, truly at the evolutionary core of our industrial revolution. But of all the many applications, none has been more enticing, far reaching or less regulated than coal burning electricity. These archaic facilities spewing their gloom into the skies and landscape all around represent an odd paradox of our modern culture, a legacy of sickness, cultural degradation and pollution, somehow justified in supplying “cheap” power to illuminate cities hundreds of miles away.

 During a journey to the Four Corners in the early 1970s, I witnessed the magnificent splendor of Monument Valley, followed by a perplexing drive by of the Four Corners Power Plant, and was astounded by the immensity of what was hurling skyward. Why wouldn’t the utilities and government agencies opt to place these plants (five in all) in this relatively isolated location? Of course they are not isolated from the Navajo people whose lands possessed the coal, water and willing labor to mine the coal and man the facilities.

The Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the country, spanning vast expanses of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah in the Four Corners region. Two of the five coal burning power plants that reside in or around the Navajo Nation are located in Northwestern New Mexico.  The San Juan and Four Corners Power Plants embody a legacy of pollution and health consequences dating back to the early 1960s, and the irony for the Dene (what the Navajo people call themselves while everyone else calls them Navajo) is that most do not even possess any electricity or running water.  Yet they shoulder the burden of the horrendous consequences of air and water pollution that contain such notable byproducts as benzene, arsenic, mercury and formaldehyde.  The potential health effects attributed to this exposure include heart attack, neurological damage, strokes, asthma, cancer and more.  We need to ask why these peoples are being exposed to such risk, while the resources are being extracted from the Navajo Reservation in massive quantities, including the coal being burned and the water needed for the steam generators, as well as the uranium mining that provides massive profits for investors with no real compensation for the Native American residents is morally corrupt. 

The San Juan Generating Station in New Mexico uses two and a half times the water annually as does the City of Santa Fe by itself.  Given the recent application of treated Rio Grande water for the municipalities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, it needs to be noted that the San Juan River, source of the water utilized by the power station, is a major tributary of the Rio Grande.  So where is the needed stewardship of our resources?  Sadly, the corporate powers are dictating the policies that are so unhealthy for our citizenry and the environment.

 The Navajo people are bearing the brunt of our insatiable need for electric power, while experiencing a poverty rate of over 50%, with unemployment topping 35%. The modest percentage of those receiving electric power is being sourced from Tucson Electric Power, hundreds of miles away with the accompanying line loss, exemplifying a corporate mindset hell bent on profits with little regard to resource efficiency, environmental impact or consideration for the land, the air or the water.

Coupled within this sorry tale, is the very real issue of coal ash, a byproduct of the mining and power generating operations.  Over 4,000,000 tons are produced annually by Arizona Public Service alone.  This inconvenient side effect contains all the many toxic byproducts, including mercury, arsenic, lead, etc., is piled in trailing ponds (called cells), where there exists no plans for cleanup and disposal is completely unregulated.  These toxins eventually leach into the ground water, adding another hideous aspect to this highly profitable and environmentally challenged technology.

The 1990 Clean Air Act has finally found some teeth, provided by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration.  After more than 20 years since this mission was defined, the EPA is now going after the most polluting coal plants in the United States.  Of course, the facilities surrounding Navajo country hover toward the top of that list.  Interestingly, there were no regulations of any kind until the 1980s, and all regulations have been typically slow in implementation.  A big aspect of that puzzling time lag are the utility companies with their well-funded lobbying efforts. Arizona Public Service is preparing to decommission five of the seven units at the Four Corners , while proposing a complete retrofit for the other two.  PNM is currently teaming with Governor Martinez on a mission to resist any of the latest EPA regulations at the San Juan facility (largely owned and operated by PNM) with the willingness to do everything possible to maintain the status quo. 

Their intent is to keep going with the same dirty coal that has blurred the sacred landscape for the past 50 years.  While the EPA is proposing an 80% cleanup of the nitrous oxide that causes much of the haze generated throughout the numerous national parks surrounding the Four Corners, PNM is proposing 20% while kicking and screaming all the while. PNM’s top 12 executives have had pay increases totalling 175% over the past three years.  During these difficult economic times, this blatant dispersal of profits from rate increases, with constant pushback regarding the size of their renewable portfolio, shows a basic contempt for the citizenry and lands of New Mexico. They appear unfazed by any criticism of their radical bottom line mentality.

Along with this backdrop of corporate tyranny, another issue hampers the Navajo in their quest for justice.  The same language used by the Code Talkers that befuddled the Japanese during World War II creates a major barrier when it comes to the Navajo leaders sitting down at public hearings to provide needed input to the issues residing on their land. Since there are no Navajo words for the technologies present, the language barrier allows much to go on unaddressed by the elders.  The Dene have mobilized a grassroots citizens group entitled DeneCare.  It translates as Dene Citizens Against Ruining the Environment  It is imperative that the exploitive story of these native people be told and that a focused movement toward renewable energy in New Mexico become our rallying cry in the years ahead.  Stay tuned… 

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