October 2005

The air that we breathe

By Gail Binkly

A proposed $2 billion power plant 30 miles south of Farmington could be a boon to an impoverished people — or a curse that would degrade health and the environment.

Those sharply conflicting views were presented at a regional air-quality conference in Durango last month. Desert Rock, a 1,500-megawatt coal-fired facility proposed on Nenahnezad Chapter land on the Navajo reservation, faces fierce opposition in some quarters although it is touted as one of the cleanest facilities ever planned.

The plant prompted conflicting presentations at the forum, which was sponsored by the Fort Lewis College Environmental Center and San Juan Basin Health Department.

Desert Rock would feature modern equipment that would capture 98 percent of nitrogen-oxide and sulfurdioxide emissions, said Suzy Baldwin, an independent contractor working with Sithe Global, the Houstonbased company that would build the plant. And a carbon- injection system would control at least 80 percent of mercury emissions, she said in her presentation. The amount of pollutants added to the air would be minimal compared to emissions from existing power plants, she said, and would be counteracted by ongoing reductions in pollution.

“Generally, emissions in the Four Corners region are going down,” she said.

The Four Corners’ two existing plants are the 1,500- megawatt San Juan Generating Station near Waterflow, N.M., and the 2,040-megawatt Four Corners Power Plant near Fruitland, N.M. The latter was ranked first in the nation by a D.C.-based environmental group for nitrogen- oxide emissions in 2004.

Together they belch forth 67,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and 37,000 tons of sulfur dioxide annually, vs. the 3,500 tons of each pollutant that the new power plant would emit, according to Sithe.

The region also sees pollution from the 2,250- megawatt Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz., and Peabody Energy wants to build a 300-megawatt power plant 24 miles south of Chaco Canyon National Park in New Mexico.

Coal-fired plants also emit mercury, a toxic element of particular concern regionally because of high levels in some local bodies of water.

Worried about the cumulative effects of all the emissions, some citizens have challenged the idea of building any new power plants in the area.

Just say ‘dooda’?

“We have a pollution problem,” said Sarah Jane White of Dooda, a Navajo group opposed to the plant. (“Dooda” means “no” in Navajo.) “It covers the San Juan Valley all the way down to Red Mesa.”

Speaking at the conference, White said preserving air quality and the environment is essential.

“We all need to protect our sky, our air, our earth, our water – everything that Nature has given us,” she said. Lori Goodman of Diné CARE (Citizens Against Ruining our Environment) agreed.

“We feel this discussion needs to include the health effects and the environment and the cultural beliefs of the community, not all about jobs, jobs, jobs,” she said.

But jobs and money are the primary reasons the the holders of grazing rights were for the purposes of negotiation. “When they say the people kept coming around, it’s negotiations,” she said.

But in a phone interview later, White was adamant that holders of grazing rights, in particular elderly people, had told her representatives of the DPA had argued them into signing away the rights.

“On more than one occasion they said, ‘No, we can’t do that. We need our grazing land.’ But they told them, ‘OK, if you don’t want to sign we’re still going to make way for the plant anyway. The (Navajo) president said OK already, and the land department. You’re going to lose out on your $1,000 (signing) bonus’.”

White said the elders were also offered $100 to go to chapter meetings, presumably to support the power plant. “I think it is not right to offer cashpoor people $1,000 to trick them into signing,” White said

Increased coal-mining

She also voiced concern over the impacts of increased coal production at the Navajo Mine, operated by BHP Billiton, which sits near the proposed plant and would be its coal source. The strip mine now fuels the Four Corners Power Plant.

Desert Rock would require 5 1/2 million to 6 million tons of coal per year and would create an additional 200 jobs at the mine, according to Steven Begay, general manager for Diné Power Authority.

Ninety-two percent of the work force at the Navajo Mine is Native American, according to information from BHP Billiton.

But White believes backers paint an overly rosy picture of how the power plant would affect employment on the reservation.

“There’s 200 jobs at the power plant and 200 for the mining. That’s not even enough to cover the people in San Juan County,” she said. “To put your health on the line for who’s going to be one of those 200 people — I just don’t see it. But people say, ‘Oh, wow, we’re all going to have a job!’ It’s like gambling.”

She said she spent last summer visiting homes in the vicinity of the mine and questions how beneficial it is. “The community people there are not benefiting from this coal mine,” she said. “I went into these houses — they have no running water and no electricity.”

The mine’s neighbors must put up with dust, vibrations and noise from drag lines operating 24 hours a day, she said, scraping away earth and vegetation to expose the coal seam. One man told her his hogan had been cracked by the vibrations. The stripmining crosses the Nehnahezad and Burnham chapter lands, forcing people to be moved out of homes where they may have lived since birth.

“One elderly living with her daughters — the drag line is coming toward her. She lives 2 miles away and she’s going to have to move,” White said. “Us Navajo are very different from Anglos. We don’t like to be relocated. We’re very traditional people.”

And while proponents may view the power-plant site as uninhabited badlands, White sees it as rich in history.

“There’s unmarked burial sites, ruins, old hogans made out of rocks and packed with mud. There’s memories of whose grandfather built them and lived in them. It’s a beautiful desert.”

White admits the Navajo Nation needs jobs, but says they shouldn’t come with deteriorating air quality.

“You see young people looking for jobs — my son is one. But why put your life on the line to get a few dollars, and down the road be sick?”

Seeing Old Smoky

A severe asthmatic, White said she was so ill a few years ago that she was in and out of the hospital for weeks, pumped full of steroids. She said she prayed to get out of the hospital — “not for the riches of the world, I just want to be healthy. My prayer came true.”

That, she said, is why she’s campaigning against another power plant — to preserve people’s health. “Every morning I get up and I see the old (Four Corners) power plant. I call it Old Smoky. I don’t want another one. It’s not worth it.”

But Baldwin maintains the Desert Rock plant is unfairly being stigmatized because of concern over the older plants and their much-higher emission levels. “We haven’t put out one emission yet, and people are protesting.”