Pavement Pieces: Coal mining on Navajo Nation

"Since the mid-20th century, coal has been the primary source of energy for electricity-generating power plants around the world. Regardless of how it is measured, coal mining, and the processing of converting coal into electricity, has proved to have a devastating environmental impact. Coal mining pollutes land and seeps into groundwater, while emissions from burning coal have been cited as one of the main sources of global warming. Currently, there are five coal mines on Navajo land, and two companies are fighting to open up two more — Black Mesa (which was closed in 2005) and Desert Rock.

Sithe Global, the multinational corporation looking to open Desert Rock, says the Navajo stand to make $52 million a year from the power plant in addition to the income from new jobs. But in reality, with more than 90,000 unemployed and thousands more underemployed, the Desert Rock plant will barely make a dent, employing only 300 workers. And although it is promoted as “clean coal,” a report by the Sierra Club estimates the emissions will poison the air, soil and water forever with toxic chemicals including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and solid waste containing cadmium, selenium, arsenic and lead.

Coal mining on the reservation is a thorny and multilayered issue. While coal companies, such as Sithe Global and Peabody Coal, are eager to build or reopen coal-fired power plants, both non-native and native environmental groups like San Juan Alliance and Diné CARE (Concerned Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment) warn of the disastrous impact of the projects. The president of the Navajo Nation government, Joe Shirley Jr., has sided with the coal companies, but the Navajo people themselves remain divided while bombarded with conflicting opinions.

Last month, Shirley issued a statement supporting future coal development in the Nation and targeting environmentalists. In part, he said, “The only people who say the project (Desert Rock) will not or cannot be permitted are environment activists … who claim to put the welfare of fish and insects above the survival of the Navajo people when in fact their only goal is to stop the use of coal in U.S. and the Navajo Nation.”

Frank Maisano, a spokesperson with Bracewell Giuliani, a Texas law firm who represents Sithe Global, put it succinctly: “Frankly, the Navajo Nation is sitting on two hundred years of coal.”"

Get the Story:
The Forgotten Navajo: People in need (Pavement Pieces 10/16)
The Forgotten Navajo: Without the basics (Pavement Pieces 10/16)
The Forgotten Navajo: Living with uranium (Pavement Pieces 10/16)
The Forgotten Navajo: A family’s pain (Pavement Pieces 10/16)
The Forgotten Navajo: Keeping culture alive (Pavement Pieces 10/16)

Environmental Appeals Board Decision:
Desert Rock Energy Company, LLC (September 24, 2009)

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EPA alters stance on Navajo power plant permit (4/28)
Navajo Nation insulted by state stance on power plant (04/03)
Editorial: Abandon Navajo power plant project (2/13)
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