Commentary

Communities are struggling after Navajo Generating Station closed down. The Corporation Commission must act now.

Navajo Generating Station in 2017. Photo by Nick Oza | Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting

For the better part of the past half century, coal was an undeniable part of life in northern Arizona. Whether you’re from the Navajo Nation, one of the Hopi villages or Page, chances are you know someone connected to either Navajo Generating Station or the massive coal mine on Black Mesa that supplied its fuel.

The plant and mine were the economic backbone of dozens of communities, both Tribal and non-Tribal. Both are now closed, with NGS and Kayenta Mine shutting down abruptly just two years ago. The closures have left deep, painful impacts on the communities we represent. But there is hope — if the Arizona Corporation Commission musters the courage to do what’s right and support the people and communities that made the inexpensive power and water that fueled Arizona’s growth and prosperity possible.

It’s time to stop kicking the can down the road with more 'study' and 'debate.' The hardships that our communities are feeling are real.

– Lena Fowler and Nicole Horseherder

The owners of NGS — who made the decision to close the plant based solely on the bottom line — have a corporate and moral responsibility not to simply walk away after decades of operation. One of them, Arizona Public Service, has acknowledged as much by proposing an assistance package that will provide close to $150 million in transition support to coal-impacted communities such as ours. 

That assistance, however, requires approval of the Corporation Commission, which will hold hearings beginning Monday to vote on some version of APS’s proposal. 

Public support is strongly behind the idea of taking care of the people and communities that helped Arizona thrive. Eight in 10 Arizonans agreed in 2019 polling that “it is important for the owners of Navajo Generating Station to provide financial assistance and support such as job training for communities impacted by the closing of the plant.” Support remained overwhelmingly favorable, even across party lines, with seven out of 10 Arizonans still thinking it would be important even if “it meant that electricity bills might go up slightly to cover these costs.”

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The Corporation Commission itself has acknowledged that utilities have “corporate obligations to support a just and equitable transition of communities impacted by early power plant closure.” It has debated the issue, considered it in three separate rate cases, and taken public comment in a generic docket. 

And yet we’re still waiting for any meaningful action and for dollars and resources to begin flowing. It’s time to stop kicking the can down the road with more “study” and “debate.” The hardships that our communities are feeling are real.

Most directly, there were, of course, the direct job losses, with close to a thousand workers laid off from some of the highest paying jobs in the region or forced to relocate. In Coconino County, the Page Public School District alone is struggling with the loss of $4 million in annual tax revenue. The Navajo Nation saw $50 million in annual coal royalty and lease payments disappear, and the Hopi were hit perhaps hardest of all, with the closures erasing 85% of the tribe’s annual budget.

These revenue decreases affect spending in everything from flood and library districts to the county community college, from scholarship programs to water treatment, and from emergency services to road repair. Local businesses also are feeling the ripple effects of a closure-related economic slowdown.

It is patently unfair to leave behind those whose sacrifices allowed Arizona to prosper. Our land, water and resources provided the backbone for the growth of Phoenix, Tucson and the rest of the state. It is now time to make sure the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe and our rural communities are provided relief to help rebuild devastated economies. 

We can’t undo the decision to retire the plant and the mine. But we can rectify the grievous mistake of not providing our communities with the support they so desperately need — and deserve — to get back on their feet.

The time for the Commission to act boldly and do the right thing on Just and Equitable Transition is now. This cannot wait. Our communities cannot wait. We need good jobs. We need infrastructure. We need workforce development. And we need the Commission’s assistance and direction to help make those things happen. 

Anything less than a full approval of the proposal that APS has put on the table is an insult to the communities whose sacrifices turned the lights on in Arizona for nearly half of the state’s history.

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Lena Fowler
Lena Fowler

Lena Fowler is a member of the Coconino County Board of Supervisors and serves as its vice chair.

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Nicole Horseherder
Nicole Horseherder

Nicole Horseherder, Diné, is from the Black Mesa region of the Navajo Nation. Nicole is one of the original founding members of Tó Nizhóní Ání and has been an active member since its establishment. Nicole is leading efforts towards transition away from fossil fuel development on the Navajo Nation. Outside of Tó Nizhóní Ání, Nicole enjoys her time with family, horses, ceremonies and traveling.

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