Commentary

A just and equitable transition is needed to honor the sacrifices made by Navajo and Hopi

June 14, 2021 3:15 pm

Black Mesa coal mine in 2017. Photo by Nick Oza | Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting

With the major coal-fired power plant and coal mine in Arizona now closed, our state has the opportunity to embrace clean, renewable energy. The question burning before us is whether the Navajo and Hopi Nations will see real benefits from this progress, which was won after decades of the exploitation of our water and air.  

With climate change growing worse, Arizonans clearly understand the critical need to take care of our planet like never before. As a long-time advocate for the protection and restoration of our water, land, and air in the Navajo-Hopi ancestral indigenous territory, I am relieved to see this change. I am also relieved that the Arizona Corporation Commission voted recently to support our communities and include us in the new clean energy economy when it passed new clean Energy Rules. If Congress can pass the American Jobs Plan, then we will move toward a just and equitable transition. 

Let me explain how we got here and what needs to happen next. 

Communities like ours have been severely impacted by coal. For decades, the Southwest has had reliable power, air-conditioning, heat and water in large part due to sacrifices made by tribal communities in Arizona. Black Mesa, the Navajo Nation community that my family has called home for centuries, is one of those.

The coal mine pumped our water from the ground in order to operate — at a rate of more than three million gallons per day. The coal from Kayenta Mine on Black Mesa was dedicated to the former Navajo Generating Station some 90 miles away in the northwestern corner of the reservation. Navajo Generating Station was, until its demolition in December, the largest coal plant in the Western United States. Power from that plant was used to move water from the Colorado River to homes all over metropolitan Phoenix over the past 50 years. And power from that plant cooled homes and buildings in Phoenix and Tucson, hundreds of miles away.  

The mine and the station provided our Navajo Nation residents with good-paying jobs that may have otherwise been unavailable to us. While this gave us a much-needed economic boost, the jobs also came with significant environmental and public health costs that have had an impact on Black Mesa and the surrounding communities so severe we will see this damage for years to come. Many suffer from asthma and other respiratory ailments. The air and water are still polluted. 

Our sacrifice is responsible for providing Central and Southern Arizona with electricity and water, but many of us are unable to obtain those benefits. Thousands of acres of Black Mesa have been completely destroyed. Our sacred lands are contaminated by polluted mine waste and heavy metals. Our aquifers have been severely drawn down due to mining. Our region sees less and less precipitation due to climate change. We created our organization, Tó Nizhóní Ání, which means “sacred water speaks,” to stop the pumping of our groundwater supply, the N-aquifer, for the Black Mesa coal mines. 

As the coal economy fades, my hope is that we are able to successfully proceed with a just and equitable transition to the clean energy economy. I am optimistic that the investments in President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan is an appropriate first step to allow our land to heal from decades of abuse. There are many ways this can happen: clean-up and reclamation of mined land and water, new jobs at solar plants, electrification of Native communities, new water infrastructure to ensure reliable clean water and broadband internet access.  

There are so many communities impacted by coal plant closures. If we act now, we can prepare for and meet the economic challenges coming. If we don’t, each coal plant closure will send impacted communities into economic devastation and struggling for years to come. The Navajo Nation was told they had less than one year of employment and operation left before NGS would close. This should not happen to any community. I urge all of Arizona’s federal representatives to vote for a meaningful bill that will honor the sacrifices made by Navajo and Hopi communities.

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