Policy Debate: Power Plants on Navajo Land
WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. In a region quickly becoming known as another "Cancer Alley," the Navajo Nation is gaining air emissions control over two power plants on tribal land.
After years of litigation and negotiations, the power plants, in New Mexico and Arizona, have agreed to recognize the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation and its right to control air emissions.
"We're demonstrating how a tribe, being a sovereign government, can regulate two big power plants on the Navajo Nation," said Calvert L. Curley, manager for Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency's Air and Toxics Department, who has been working on the agreement for 10 years.
"This is a big step in terms of tribal sovereignty and in terms of power companies being good neighbors and business partners to recognize the competence of our department to conduct this technical work. This agreement is going to be here as long as the plants operate," Curley said in a statement.
The Navajo EPA said the Air Quality Voluntary Compliance Agreement is the first of its kind in the country. The agency has 66 full-time employees and is the largest American Indian EPA program.
The new agreement with Salt River Project in Arizona and Arizona Public Service in New Mexico will result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in permit fees paid to the tribe, rather than the U.S. EPA. The tribe will use the fees, currently $700,000 from both plants, for the tribe's clean air program.
SRP Navajo Generating Station in LeChee Chapter near Page, Ariz., and the APS Four Corners Power Plant in Nenahneezad/San Juan Chapter in the Four Corners area near Shiprock, N.M., will have their emissions monitored and regulated by the Navajo EPA Air Toxics Department.
The agreement did not come easily for the tribe. After the Navajo Nation Council passed the Navajo Clean Air Act in 1995, the two companies filed suit in tribal court, arguing that their lease agreements stated the tribe had no regulatory authority over them. However, in order to avoid further litigation, the tribe and companies entered into negotiations for the agreement, which was eventually agreed to by the U.S. EPA.
While the Navajo Nation government is planning yet another power plant on tribal land, Desert Rock in New Mexico, a new generation of Navajo elders and youths are protesting the new plant while rallying for environmental justice and new energy solutions, such as wind and solar.
Navajos at the environmental group Dine' CARE (Citizens Against Ruining our Environment) compare the region to Cancer Alley in southern Louisiana, where petroleum companies were built in a poverty-stricken region and high cancer rates followed.
Sarah Jane White of Sanostee, N.M., member of the "Dooda [No] Desert Rock" Navajo group, pointed out that little is being done to counter the pollution and treat the respiratory diseases and cancers resulting from local power plants.
Further, the new Navajo Nation agreement only applies to air emissions -- not to water violations or solid waste dumping -- and at only two of the area power plants. It does not apply to bordertown power plants that produce toxic smog over the Navajo Nation, such the San Juan Generating Station near Shiprock, N.M. Both the San Juan Generating Station and the APS Four Corners Power plant are on the list of the top 50 power plants in the nation for mercury emissions.
Dr. John Fogarty, physician on the Navajo Nation and professor, is among the doctors concerned over the effect of mercury emissions on intelligence.
Recent studies by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences show that methyl mercury emissions from power plants, even at low levels, could cause life-long loss of intelligence in hundreds of thousands of children.
Power plants can be cleaner, said Craig Rawlings, Smallwood Enterprise Agent for the Montana Community Development Corp.
"One way to reduce toxic emissions from coal-burning power plants is to co-fire with woody biomass from forest thinning and coal. A mixture of 15 percent wood chips or pellets mixed with 85 percent coal can drastically reduce sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxide and greenhouse-gas emissions," Rawlings told Indian Country Today.
When it is used as a supplemental fuel in an existing coal boiler, biomass can provide lower fuel costs and reduce emissions, he said.
The mercury and noxious gas emissions from power plants, combined with the dust from coal mines and oil company spills in the San Juan River, creates a toxic soup for Navajo Nation residents.
Oil discharges into the San Juan River flowing through the Navajo Nation are common, according to the U.S. EPA.
Mobil Exploration and Producing U.S. Inc. recently agreed to pay over $5.5 million for 83 oil spills, which reached the San Juan River on Navajoland in Utah. The settlement for violating the Clean Water Act includes a $515,000 penalty and $4.7 million to be spent to reduce spills.
Mobil will spend $327,000 on sanitation facilities and the construction of a drinking water supply line for 17 Navajo families who drive up to an hour to get their drinking water in 55-gallon drums.
Meanwhile, in Bloomfield, N.M., in the concentrated region of power plants and coalmines in the Four Corners area, Elm Ridge Resources was recently fined $40,000 for oil spill violations into washes that reach the San Juan River.
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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News