January 24, 2017

Hearing weighs environmental concerns, tribal jobs, water rights

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – Leaders of three American Indian tribes said May 24 that closing a coal–fired power plant in northern Arizona would devastate their communities, leave hundreds without jobs and threaten water rights settlements.

Others speaking at a joint congressional hearing on the role of Navajo Generating Station in Page said the dire predictions are overblown. They urged Congress to transition the plant from coal to renewable energy to protect people’s health and the environment.

The hearing came as the EPA considers whether to require further reduction of nitrogen oxide emissions from the plant on the Navajo Nation.

The plant’s owners say an upgrade of pollution controls would be negligible in clearing up haze around the Grand Canyon and other areas under the Clean Air Act. Without approval of lease extensions and right–of–way grants, the upgrade would not be worth the expected $1.1 billion cost, said Richard Silverman, general manager of Salt River Project, which operates the plant.

The EPA plans to release its proposal on pollution controls this summer and a final rule next year. That would start a 5–year clock on installing controls. The plant’s operators want to keep Navajo Generating Station running until 2044.

The Clean Air Act passed by Congress requires that visibility in the nation’s most pristine areas be protected. The EPA developed the regional haze rule to implement the law and is considering the best available technology to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions.

The EPA said it’s evaluating the potential impact on water and electricity bills, the cost of compliance, the existing pollution controls at the plant, the life of the plant and the coal source, and the degree of visibility.

“It’s a tough decision,” said Colleen McKaughan, associate director of the EPA’s air division in San Francisco.

Democratic Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts said the owners of Navajo Generating Station were well they would have to make investments to clean up the pollution. The plant is among the nation’s top producers of nitrogen oxide emissions.

Much like a California preacher’s end–of–the–world prediction, the forecast of a regulatory rapture upon Navajo Generating Station “is overblown,” he said.

Republican congressional members, tribal leaders, a Pinal County farmer and the general managers of SRP and the Central Arizona Project pointed to far–reaching impacts should a shutdown occur.

Navajo Generating Station and the Kayenta Mine contribute about $140 million in revenue and wages to the Navajo Nation, while the Hopi Tribe receives $13 million for its coal and water. Some 1,000 people are employed at the plant and the coal mine, the majority being American Indians.

The power plant also provides the energy needed to deliver water from the Colorado River to Tucson and Phoenix through a series of canals. That same delivery system ensures provisions of American Indian water rights settlements are met.

Gila River Indian Community Lt. Gov. Joseph Manuel said the tribe would be forced to sue the United States if it no longer had access to affordable water that was guaranteed under a 2004 settlement. He said it doesn’t make sense for EPA to take action that exposes the federal government to litigation, but “we have to protect our people.”

Hopi Chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa said that without the revenue from coal and water that makes up 80 percent of the tribe’s non–federal budget, “we will not be able to maintain our homelands.”

“It is up to us to regulate what we have,” he said. “And if the Hopi people choose that we sell our coal to NGS, then let us do so.”

Marshall Johnson, a Navajo from Black Mesa, said Navajos and Hopis have subsidized their livelihoods for the benefit of residents in the central and southern part of the state for too long. Tribal members living near the power plant do not have running water or electricity in their homes, and their health is suffering.

“Navajos can no longer carry the burden of the most expensive water project in the world,” Johnson said. “The time is now for CAP to become self–sufficient.”

Strip mining also has destroyed ancestral villages and burial sites, and previous coal mining operations have resulted in a loss of water that could have sustained Hopis for 300 years, said Vernon Masayesva, a Hopi and director of the Black Mesa Trust.

“Unfortunately the issue is framed as purely an economic crisis,” he said. “The cultural values, conditions are absent from the discussion, so it’s not a balanced debate.”

While Masayesva and Johnson urged a transition to renewable energy, CAP general manager David Modeer said that’s not a viable option in the near future.

“There is no alternative to the Navajo Generating Station for the operation of the Central Arizona Project,” he said. “And there is no prospect for replacement of baseload power.”