Navajo And Hopi People Lose Out Big In Energy Decision

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Jason Hopkins Immigration and politics reporter
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The board members of an Arizona aqueduct system voted in favor of obtaining power outside of the Navajo Generating Station, dealing a blow to the coal plant’s future.

In a Thursday meeting, the Central Arizona Project board members voted to approve a 20-year power agreement with AZ Solar 1. The decision comes as a major setback for the Navajo Generating Station, a large coal-fired plant that has been CAP’s main electricity supplier for decades. The decision to obtain power from another energy source may hamper NGS’s ability to finalize a transfer of ownership, putting plant and mine workers’ jobs at risk.

During the meeting, leaders of the Navajo and Hopi tribes pleaded with board members to delay any decision, detailing how vital NGS is to their economy. Joe Greco, an official with Middle River Power, said his company wants to purchase NGS and is currently in talks with the plant’s owners. Greco also implored board members to wait on making any decision in order to allow more time for a transfer agreement to reach fruition.

Board members, however, moved forward with the motion to obtain alternative power.

Salt River Project — the current owner and operator of NGS — has said that it plans to close the plant down, citing continual revenue losses. Salt River Project has been in talks with prospective buyers, but if a new owner isn’t located, the plant will shut down by the end of 2019. The closure of NGS would also mean the end of the nearby Kayenta coal mine, since NGS is its only customer. (RELATED: Coal, Not Nuclear, Is Trump’s Biggest Concern In Energy Sector)

The vote came a day after NGS supporters held a rally in Phoenix. Around 300 plant workers, miners, tribal members and their families rallied outside of the Arizona capitol, urging CAP board members to wait three months before deciding to purchase power elsewhere. Such a hiatus, they argued, would give the plant’s owners enough time to negotiate a sale.

“We’re worth 90 days,” Hopi Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma said in a Wednesday statement. “The Hopi are pleased Interior has stepped up to remind the board of the legal covenants that govern them. The bottom line is, let’s slow this process down, answer important questions, and give the prospective new owners some time to deliver.”

Adding to pressure, the Department of the Interior sent a letter to CAP board members on June 1 urging them to continue purchasing electricity from NGS. The letter cited a 1968 law that “appears to authorize NGS as a source of power for the project.”

The Wednesday rally was organized in large part by “Yes to NGS,” a coalition of tribal and labor groups working to save the plant from closure.

“The Navajo Nation supports a 90-day pause on the process to purchase power from sources other than NGS,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said in a Wednesday statement.  “We should continue to work to find solutions to keep the plant operating while supporting both the Navajo economy and families.”

Located near Page, Arizona, NGS was built in the 1970s to supply water to CAP, a diversion canal in western Arizona. NGS currently supplies about 75 percent of CAP’s electricity. It not only provides electrical power for customers across the region, but it’s also a crucial source of employment and revenue for the local American Indian population.

The 2,250 megawatt coal plant provides around 500 jobs, with over 90 percent of those positions filled by members of Navajo Nation — the largest American Indian reservation in the country. The Hopi, a smaller native tribe in the region, also benefit economically from the plant. NGS accounts for 22 percent of the Navajo tribe’s total revenue and 85 percent for the Hopi.

“We are very disappointed that the Board voted against lower cost power, hundreds of Native American jobs, and the economic future of the Navajo and Hopi people,” Yes to NGS Chairman Sydney Hay said in a Thursday statement.

“We don’t understand why the Board would deliberately execute a more expensive power agreement when the Department of Interior has called into question its legal authority to even consider taking power from other sources,” Hay continued. “Nor do we understand why would it take an action that it knows will negatively impact tribal families. Lives depend on these operations.”

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