Navajo Nation In Crisis As EPA Tries To Shutter The West’s Largest Coal Plant

(Credit: Oleksii Fedorenko/Shutterstock)

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Joseph Hammond Contributor
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The Navajo residents of Page, Ariz., have gotten to the point where they openly worry their modest rush hour may end altogether.

The rush hour consists of only a few hundred cars carrying 520 people out to the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), heading down a windy road to the coal-fired power plant, which is dramatically positioned on a ridge a mile from the shores of Lake Powell, the second largest man-made reservoir in the United States.

The Navajo coal plant’s lease is set to expire in 2019, pending complex negotiations aimed at extending operations until 2044. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations have complicated the plant’s future through so-called Regional Haze regulations, which were crafted to improve visibility and not curb pollution. In essence, the Navajo Nation and the region could lose a key source of economic prosperity to slightly improve tourists’ view of the Grand Canyon.

“Historically power plants and mines have been some of the best jobs for those in the nation, but the plants do more than just provide high paying jobs they have allowed the Navajo Nation to preserve its unique cultural identity.” says Arizona state Sen. Carlyle Begay, himself of Navajo heritage.

Begay recently switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican and is running for Congress in Arizona’s 1st District, in part because of his frustration over the role the EPA plays in the region. He’s frustrated EPA’s threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of Navajos in the name of a regulation that won’t improve public health — it’s purely there for aesthetics.

“If you look at the EPA’s stated goals and then look at how they are applied in practice, the new regulations will have a disproportionately negative impact on the economy of Navajo Nation to much greater extent than other communities in the Southwest. The EPA needs to understand that the Navajo Nation has a job crisis and a 52% unemployment rate,” Begay explains.

A view from the coal plant

A view out into the mountains from the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) — Credit: Joseph Hammond

In 2014, the EPA implemented the Best Available Retrofit Technology (BART) regulation to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions ostensibly to improve visibility under the Regional Haze Rule created by the Clean Air Act. As part of the BART rule, NGS may need to install a Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) system to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. The installation of SCR technology would itself require an additional filtration technology.

In total, these two upgrades could cost roughly a billion dollars and lead to an increase in electricity rates for customers all in the name of making imperceptible improvements to visibility in the region.

“We do not currently have an estimate for whatever technology (possibly SCR) will be used on the two remaining units as we are unsure of what technology will be available and what it will cost in 2029 and 2030,” explains Scott Harelson, a spokesperson for the Salt River Project of which NGS is part.

If the plant’s lease is not extended until 2044, Arizona stands to lose $18 billion in gross state product as well as an annual loss of 3,400 jobs, according to a 2012 report from the L. William Seidman Research Institute at Arizona State University. Yet, the impact will not be felt evenly since NGS is an important part of the Navajo Nation’s economy.

“This job is very important to me it has allowed me to work closer to my family and have the income to settle and start a family,” says coal plant operator Angelisa Zahne.

Zahne is only the third woman to train as an operator. She lives on Navajo Nation land miles from a highway where her husband built their home. Her husband spends his time minding the property, roping horses and looking after the couple’s 19-month-old daughter. Zahne, who’s pregnant with the couple’s second child, works in NGS’s control room.

“I started my career in the field and learned boiler making and welding, one of my instructors convinced me to apply for an operator position,” she remembers.

Justin John


[Listen to part of Justin John’s interview]

Some of the few technical jobs in the Navajo Nation are on NGS. The plant’s manager of engineering and its six chemists are all Navajos. Closing the plant would also cause some of the Navajo Nation’s most highly trained employees to leave for jobs elsewhere, which could have a cultural impact.

Quality jobs like those at NGS or at the Black Mesa coal mine, which supplies the plant with fuel, are a rarity in Navajo Nation. On the reservation, the poverty rate is 43 percent, and one 2010 study found per capita income here was less than half the per capita income of the rest of Arizona. A drive down scenic two-lane Northern Arizona highways reveals many single family homes doting the desolate desert landscape. Many of these homes are often miles from the nearest town, public utility line or even paved road.

The shuttering of the NGS and the coal mine that supplies it could lead the Navajo economy to rely more on federal largesse or to further develop the reservation’s casinos.

“That peace of mind we used to have isn’t there before as EPA regulations become more stringent and it becomes too expensive to burn coal as a result of these negotiations, this will put everyone at the plant or at the coal mine at risk of losing their job.” says plant supervisor Travis Francisco.

Travis Francisco explains what it’s like to work at NGS — Credit: Joseph Hammond

[Listen to part of Travis Francisco’s interview]

When They Almost Flooded The Sistine Chapel

In the 1960s, the energy and water needs of communities in Nevada, Arizona and California resulted in a proposal to build two new dams at the Grand Canyon. The Sierra Club’s David Ross Brower publicly criticized the proposed dams by funding an advertisement that read “Should We Also Flood the Sistine Chapel So Tourists Can Get Nearer The Ceiling?”

Instead Arizonan Stewart Lee Udall, who served as secretary of the interior under President John F. Kennedy and later President Lyndon B. Johnson, proposed a coal-fired power plant be built. This would meet the Southwest’s public utility needs and preserve the area’s scenic canyons. The Navajo Nation later unanimously approved the plan. NGS’s three 750 megawatts units went online in 1974, 1975 and 1976. For decades the facility has sent electricity to Las Vegas and Los Angeles in addition to pumping water across the desert to the thirsty communities of Phoenix and Tucson.

Today, views about the plant are less unanimous. Roger Clark, the director of programs at the Grand Canyon Trust, notes “NGS is the largest coal fired power plant west of the Mississippi and it is the largest single source of carbon dioxide in Arizona.”

Jihan Gearon, executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, is also critical of NGS, telling The Daily Caller News Foundation, “there is a double standard when it comes to NGS from the EPA, NGS gets extensions to comply with environmental rules because of jobs. The distinction between the environment and jobs is a false choice, they should aim to shut down NGS sooner than 2044 as part of a broader strategy to develop new jobs and take the Navajo Nation off of coal.”

Her environmental organization is suing EPA for the lack of transparency over deliberations on NGS (the EPA declined to comment on this story due to the pending litigation.)


Walking up to the NGS on a sunny day — Credit: Joseph Hammond

[Listen to the rest of Travis Francisco’s interview]

William Yeatman, a research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who has studied the issue closely, believes the EPA’s Regional Haze rule to enhance visibility is questionable at best. He has conducted simulations that reveal reducing nitrogen oxide emissions makes no perceptible difference in terms of visibility. Yeatman, an air quality expert, has testified before Congress as recently as this year regarding his research.

“The EPA can’t point to an effect that implementing this rule will have on visibility, because if you look at the data, the impact on visibility they claim is invisible,” he said.

“If the BART rule actual did improve photo quality for tourists visiting the Grand Canyon that would at least be in line with the congressional mandate but, it does not improve visibility,” he said. “Nor is it a health issues NGS is in compliance with all emissions targets, that according to the regulations themselves go beyond what it required for public health.”

The area’s geography can contribute to visibility, and dust storms that originate as far away as Mongolia’s Gobi Desert are known to effect the region. Yeatman believes the EPA rules are more about an ideological shift than visibility.

“Since 2009, the EPA it appears has been imposing the most expensive controls from SCR to baghouses on coal-fired power plants,” he said. “It is my personal opinion this is being done regardless of what makes sense for the facility in question. These new policies in my opinion are more about making coal energy more expensive than so-called green energy.”

Yeatman points out these new regulations could result in a significant increase in water and electricity prices for those who rely on the Navajo Generating Station.

A Cockpit Of Power

NGS’s management took advantage of this year’s maintenance period to install new display consoles in the plant’s control room. The previous bulky stations have given way to 18 new Hewlett-Packard monitors with brighter high definition screens that make the facility look like a NASA control room.

At least one operator monitors these screens 24-hours a day. The plant’s function and control room operator scans these screens looking for changes in temperature, pressure, and slight abnormalities. The operator is in contact with the bottom ash operator, a boiler operator, a base bit operator and a control room operator through a walkie-talkie. The tedious tranquility of a shift at the operator desk can be broken by moments when alert bells sound and the radio comes alive with the crackle of inquiries from operators in other parts of the plant.

With a 170,000 speakers, the Navajo language is one the most widely spoken of all American Indian languages, though its future remains in doubt. According to the 2010 U.S Census, less than half of those who identify as Navajo live on the Navajo Nation. In the parking lot employees greet each other in Navajo, but once inside, switch to English.

“English is our universal language on site. We want to avoid misunderstandings on the radio due to dialect differences or fluency levels” says Justin John, one of the control room operators.

When his shift ends, John signs over control to the next shift and walks out of the control room. Leaving the control room one passes the workers on the overhaul and towards an elevator to the parking lot. The sterile lights of the control room and the tobacco filter-like light of the ground floor spill out into the dry desert heat of Northern Arizona. NGS sits atop a small ridge, allowing even those in the parking lot to see for miles around.

At the end of long shift, NGS employees have little time to take in the view. Soon the cars start to pull out of the parking lot one by one and join the line of vehicles heading into town to the evening rush hour.

Coal plant monitors

A computer screen monitoring NGS operations — Credit: Joseph Hammond

[Listen to the rest of Justin John’s interview]

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