In Navajo country, coal gives life — and takes it, some say
From her bedroom window, Cynthia Dixon watches the cloud of soot rise from the coal mine near her sheep spread. Down the road, a hulking coal-fired electrical plant spews a yellow plume that stains the horizon.
Many days, she finds a layer of black dust coating the inside of her trailer home. Farmers who have worked the land for decades say fouled air from the mine and nearby Four Corners coal-fired power plant has shriveled fruits and vegetables in the field. And there are fewer eagles and jack rabbits, which once thrived on the Navajo Reservation, they add.
In the last two years, the air, Dixon suspects, has killed 38 of her 56 sheep. She found the last two — a lamb and a ewe — a few months ago. But it’s not just her animals who are suffering: The Navajo elder often gasps for breath from the soot, she says.
Four Corners is one of the nation’s oldest coal-fired power plants. Owned and operated on leased Navajo land by Arizona Public Service, it sits near the San Juan Generating Station, another coal-fired plant just off the reservation here in northwestern New Mexico.
Together, the facilities are the nation’s two largest plant emitters of nitrogen oxide, which can affect breathing in high concentrations, according to a study by the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Scientists found the plants are at the threshold of the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards for clean air, but possible changes to the standards could soon put the facilities over the legal limit.
As the facilities rumble around the clock to light homes in faraway Phoenix and elsewhere, tens of thousands of Navajo — as well as the residents of such communities as Farmington, N.M. — inhabit a realm that environmentalists call the energy garbage dump of the American West.
Nobody knows whether the power plants are making people sick, but their presence continues to divide tribal members. Some residents blame particulates from Four Corners for high rates of asthma, pneumonia and bronchitis and bitterly criticize the hundreds of Navajo who work at the plant.
Tribal activists want the Navajo leadership to move beyond coal and invest in cleaner technologies such as solar and wind power. But officials insist the tribe needs Four Corners because it generates $40 million in annual taxes and royalties — a sizable portion of the tribe’s operating budget.
In recent years, Four Corners has improved its air quality. In 2010, the EPA ordered a cleanup; this year, Arizona Public Service closed three of the facility’s five emit stacks and is retrofitting the remaining two to cut emissions of nitrogen oxide by at least 30%, plant officials say.
But activists want more: They say there has never been a study that directly examines the health effects of Four Corners emissions. A 2010 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that coal and wood burning inside homes on the reservation caused breathing difficulties, but the study never looked at the effects of Four Corners particulates, study officials acknowledge.
Tribal leaders regularly monitor particulates from the plants, often asking residents and schools to call tribal offices with complaints. Windy days are the worst.
Dixon, 59, uses a propane heater in her tiny trailer. She dreads the onset of winter, when the inversion layer holds power plant emissions closer to the ground, where they cloud the sun and do their damage. She wants to leave. “But where can I go?” she asks.
Tribal activist Sarah White motions toward Four Corners. The 65-year-old, who has asthma, is convinced that pollution from the plant is ruining her health: “I can just imagine what I’m breathing in.”
Her suspicions led her to speak out on a reservation she says was once known not for air pollution but for its star-filled night skies and majestic stone edifice known as Shiprock.
White joined a small but determined Navajo group called Dine Citizens Against Ruining our Environment. Members have doggedly lobbied the tribal government to end its economic dependence on coal. They stand up at tribal board meetings with pointed questions, rallying residents to elect new leaders who are not beholden to coal interests.
Going door to door, they gather petitions to draw attention to high tribal sickness rates. In 2006, Dine CARE members teamed up with the San Juan Citizens Alliance to file suit against the federal government to examine the direct health effects of both the Navajo mine and Four Corners.
This year, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining released a draft environmental impact report saying improvements were being made at Four Corners, and estimating the chance of getting cancer near the plant as one in a million.
Activists say a comprehensive government study of Four Corners has yet to be done.
“People think we should be happy about the closure of those three stacks, but we’re not. It’s like drinking 15 ounces of Drano instead of 20,” said Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico energy coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
Navajo leaders insist the plant and coal mine are crucial to the Navajo economy because they provide 800 jobs in an area where unemployment often tops 50%.
They recently extended the utility’s lease at Four Corners until 2041 and purchased the mine near Dixon’s ranch that supplies coal to Four Corners — moves they insist help guarantee the tribe’s future.
Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the tribe’s Environmental Protection Agency, empathizes with residents. “I tell people their issues are real,” he said. “Four Corners plays a role in the community’s health, but there are other factors too.”
Such as plant salaries exceeding $55,000 a year. “On the reservation, that salary puts you squarely in the upper middle class,” he said. “That’s tough to give up.”
David Hansen, vice president of fossil generation at Arizona Public Service, called the plant’s operation “good for the Navajo Nation, good for the environment and good for our customers.”
In his book “Fire on the Plateau,” Charles Wilkinson, a public land law scholar at the University of Colorado Law School, details how the shadow of big coal emerged here during the 1960s, when urban consumers across the Southwest sought cheap power without having to deal directly with the environmental downside of coal factories.
They found it on the Navajo’s 27,000-square-mile reservation covering parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, among “people too few and powerless to resist,” Wilkinson wrote. The U.S. government cut backroom deals with coal, oil and gas companies on behalf of tribal councils, which quickly formed to ease the extraction of resources, he asserted.
“It was a water and power grab of the highest order,” Wilkinson said. “The Navajo were a sovereign nation in name only. The U.S. government just told tribal leaders to ‘sign here.’ Most of the electricity was designed to leave the reservation.”
Dixon said sheep ranchers were driven from their land by the burgeoning development and graveyards were hastily relocated in the frenzied search for more coal to feed the power plants.
The year 2005 galvanized activists. That’s when members of Dine, which means “the people” in Navajo, helped defeat a tribal proposal to build a third coal-fired plant known as Desert Rock.
White and her daughter, Victoria Gutierrez, still drive the reservation’s back roads to convince Navajo plant workers that good salaries aren’t worth their health.
“One plant welder told me that the money is good,” Gutierrez said, “but he knows he’ll die early from the pollution particles, which he said were like shimmering pieces of glass suspended in the air.”
Navajo farmer Joe Allen has watched over the years as his watermelons shrank to the size of a human fist, his corn stalks stunted to just knee-high. He blames the coal dust.
Allen recently took a stand against the power company: Utility officials had erected a gate to block access to a road used by its lumbering trucks. It kept Allen from getting to a small family cemetery. The plant already rules the sky over his head, he said; now officials want the land beneath his feet as well.
One evening, he confronted a Four Corners security guard, a fellow Navajo, threatening to ram the gate with his truck. He asked how one Navajo could do this to another. Then, his voice breaking, he shouted toward the plant’s two remaining emission towers: “The soot from those two black lungs is killing all of us.”
Plant guards let Allen through. As the light faded, a small procession eased down a dusty dirt road and the Navajo men walked to the graveyard, tending to the earthen mounds of their ancestors.
Just over a hill, Four Corners and its smokestacks loomed in the distance.
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